REVIEW: Flight

24 11 2012

Denzel Washington has wowed audiences by playing both sides of the hero-villain spectrum.  Just look at the two performances that earned him Oscars.  1989’s “Glory” saw him as an almost angelic soldier fighting in the first all-black company in the United States Army, while 2001’s “Training Day” had him as a cop so devious and corrupt you wanted to jump through the screen and put a bullet through his head.

In “Flight,” Washington plays in the shades of grey of Whip Whitaker, an alcoholic pilot who becomes a hero after steering his malfunctioning plane to safety with his unconventional wisdom.  The catch is that Whitaker was high on cocaine and drunk as a skunk when he did so.  Of course, the public blindly adores him in a way reminiscent of Sully, the pilot who landed his vessel in the Hudson River and had a memoir in Barnes & Noble faster than you could say “American Airlines.”  But Whitaker has plenty of baggage that he can’t come to grips with and can’t compress into one of the overhead bins.  (Sorry, the puns with “Flight” are just endless.)

Because it’s a Denzel Washington performance, it’s fascinating to watch.  He owns the screen with a commanding presence rivaled by few in cinema these days.  But because Washington has such well-known and well-defined extremes, it’s fairly easy to tell what he thinks of Whitaker.

While he may have the moments of tough, firm leadership that Coach Herman Boone exhibits, Whitaker is clearly more in the model of a Frank Lucas or an Alonzo Harris.  It’s impressive that Washington can convey meaning through the mere iconography of his stature; however, in a movie like “Flight” that depends on our shifting judgements of the protagonist, that strength becomes a liability.

Director Robert Zemeckis does a half-decent job at masking the vacuousness of “Flight” with all sort of little frills.  The ride might seem relatively free of turbulence.  But after landing and inspection of the ride, it’s easy to spot problems with the flight crew.  John Gatins’ script is full of holes and loose ends.  It calls for an ensemble to surround Washington almost to the point of fault, and Zemeckis indulges by throwing in random celebrity appearances to fill them.  (I mean, did we really need Melissa Leo to play the thankless inquisitor role in the climactic scene?  What did she really add to the movie?  Why couldn’t you have thrown a bone to a struggling professional actress looking for exposure?)

There are so many characters that pop in and out of the frame that we barely get to know any of them, not even Kelly Reilly’s Nicole.  Though woefully undeveloped, she’s meant to be both a foil and a mirror for Whitaker.  Gatins handles her appearances poorly, wasting them on throwaway moments when she really could have contributed to a much deeper understanding of Whitaker.

Instead, she’s a tool for Zemeckis to keep the movie interesting with all sorts of sensationalism and melodrama.  Because once his spectacular plane crash sequence is over, he relies solely on the actors to provide the thrills.  And to great extent, they do.  (I’m thinking in particular of John Goodman’s Harling Mays, a zany coked-out compadre of Whitaker’s.)

But the character study that seems to be promised by our intimate involvement with Denzel Washington’s Whip Whitaker is ultimately never delivered.  Instead, we get a soapy morality play about alcoholism – with an awesome plane crash.  Oh, and Denzel Washington, who you don’t normally get when these types of movies premiere on cable TV.  B



2 responses

25 11 2012

Good review Marshall. For me, the film started off so strong and stayed that way for quite awhile, until it just started to drop-down into conventional material that didn’t seem deserved or understandable enough for Whip and everything he was going through. Still, Denzel definitely deserves an Oscar nomination for his work here because the guy is freakin’ out-standing.

25 11 2012

I disagree that he deserves an Oscar nomination. He’s done far better, and I wasn’t all that taken by this work. I can easily name 6 or 7 performances more deserving a spot in Best Actor than Washington in “Flight.”

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