Denzel Washington as Whip Whitaker
Kelly Reilly as Nicole
Brian Geraghty as Ken Evans
Bruce Greenwood as Charlie Anderson
Don Cheadle as Hugh Lang
John Goodman as Harling Mays
Nadine Velazquez as Katerina Marquez
Melissa Leo as Ellen Block
Tamara Tunie as Margaret Thomason
Garcelle Beauvais as Deana
Dylan Kussman as Two Beer Barry
Kwesi Boakye as Knuckles
James Badge Dale as Gaunt Young Man
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Pilot “Whip” Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is having a normal day flying a commercial airlines jet filled with passengers, but when a freak accident sends his plane into a nosedive, he has to think fast to land the plane safely. Declared a hero, Whitaker struggles in the aftermath when he’s informed that his inebriated condition could put him in jail for manslaughter for those that died. While in the hospital, Whip meets Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a troubled woman with a drug problem and together they try to get through their addictions while Whip struggles with the blame for the accident.
It’s been nearly twelve years since Robert Zemeckis directed a live action film and you have to wonder if maybe he got sick of directing family movies like “The Polar Express” and “Disney’s A Christmas Carol” because he begins this one with full frontal female nudity, the drinking of hard alcohol and the snorting of cocaine. This isn’t “Forrest Gump 2” as much as its our introduction to Denzel Washington’s “Whip” Whitaker, a divorced commercial airline pilot who we see drinking on the job before a freak accident sends his plane into a nosedive, forcing him to use all his knowledge and skills to crash land the plane into a field, saving all but six of the crew and passengers.
If you’ve seen the commercials, then you already know the general story about how this hero airplane pilot is suddenly put under scrutiny for the accident after they learn he’d been drinking and the next two hours are spent following his journey to come to terms with his alcoholism.
With a solid script written by John Gatins, it’s not particularly surprising Zemeckis would be attracted to the material and would want to direct the movie, and he hasn’t really lost a beat since the similar “Cast Away.” Much like that movie was for Tom Hanks, this one is meant as a starring spotlight vehicle for Washington, and there are many similarities between the films in terms of the pacing, both being subdued character studies that come from out of an accident. After the excitement of the plane crash, the rest of the movie tends to drag and it’s going to be hard to maintain the interest of Joe Moviegoer with what ends up being a straight character drama as we watch Whip trying to come to terms with what happened and whether or not he should take responsibility.
Washington puts a lot into this damaged character, without doing much to help the viewer differentiate actor from character. This may contribute to why Whip is a fairly unsympathetic character and since it literally takes him the entire movie to come clean, so to speak, it’s hard to really care what happens to him. The best parts of the movie involve his interacting with Kelly Reilly as Nicole, a down in the dumps junkie who we watch on a concurrent path with Whip’s fateful flight. The two of them meet in a hospital stairwell, barely say a word to each other while being entertained by a witty cancer patient (played by James Badge Dale), and next thing you know, he’s showing up at her door to rescue her as she’s being evicted, allowing her to stay with him on his father’s farm. Their relationship grows from there, but once she exits, the movie never fully recovers.
Zemeckis’ direction is soured slightly by some obvious laziness, like turning to the Rolling Stones for the soundtrack i.e. Scorsese territory even if it is the most appropriate way to introduce John Goodman as Whip’s drug dealer friend Harling. It’s another funny character performance from Goodman as he sneaks Whip out of the hospital after the accident, and sadly, he only returns once much later, just in time to save the movie. For the most part, every scene involves Washington interacting with various characters as he tries to come to terms with his involvement in the crash, whether it’s Brian Geraghty as Whip’s co-pilot, Bruce Greenwood as his long-time friend in the union, and Don Cheadle as a crack lawyer assigned to protect Whip from those who want to pin the accident on him.
There are many great scenes, but it still feels erratic, because having witnessed the accident play out, you do tend to side with Whip, and by the time things start getting good and the story reaches a resolution in the third act, it suddenly ends, making you feel as if they wrapped things up without properly resolving one of the most important relationships, that of Whip and Nicole, in a satisfying way.
The Bottom Line:
Robert Zemeckis’ “Flight” has problems in its pacing and delivering a satisfying payoff, even as he proves himself as a director able to drive the drama with strong performances and enough moments that keep the overly long movie from turning into a complete snoozefest.