Commercial pilot Whip Whitaker (Washington) faces charges of manslaughter after crash landing a plane and killing six people on board. At first regarded as a hero, things soon turn sour as his blood tests positive for alcohol the day of the flight.
The funny thing about Robert Zemeckis is that it really doesn’t matter if he ever makes a bad film. Really. Because if there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that the man who brought the world Back To The Future is instantly redeemed for any and all failures. Thankfully, though, the director’s first live action film in over a decade isn’t a failure. In fact, it’s pretty darn good.
The film is welded around Denzel Washington’s performance, which can only be described as monumental. Playing one of the most interesting, divisive and frustrating characters in recent memory, he is on painfully good form, and fully deserving of his sixth Oscar nod. The reason this character is so intriguing is because we never quite know how to approach him. On the one hand he’s an incredibly likable protagonist with a good heart and a care free, cheeky side that we can sympathise with, but on the other he’s an arrogant, frustrating alcoholic who at every turn creates his own undoing. There are moments throughout the drama where we just get so fed up with his actions that we actually don’t care what happens to him, or sometimes we even want him to be punished, yet in the next scene he moves a certain way or says a certain thing, and suddenly all that sympathy washes back in. Washington’s ability to balance these juxtaposing personalities with such precision and professionalism, so much so that he actually drags the audience between two mindsets so regularly, can only be admired.
Last year’s The Grey featured one of the most brilliant and realistic plane crashes ever put on screen. Flight’s similar sequence perhaps doesn’t better it, but it certainly gives it a run for its money. Capturing the peril of the situation and putting hearts in mouths with unrelenting realism shows off some really quality filmmaking from Zemeckis.
The problems with the film are never too condemning, but they are consistent. The music, for example, is an odd mix. Some great tracks are riddled throughout, but the juxtaposition between them and the narrative doesn’t quite work as it regularly undermines the drama. Only Tarantino seems to be able to pull off such ambitious soundtrack choices. Of course, if you want to look at it subtextually you could see that juxtaposition as a material representation of Whitaker’s character, but that’s up to you. There are also times when the ‘grown up’ themes come on a bit strong, as if Zemeckis is trying to prove that he isn’t just a child’s director. The very first thing we see, for instance, is a naked woman smoking a joint while Whitaker – also nude – downs a stale beer from the night before. It’s not exactly an ostensible problem, and sure it’s necessary to set the scene and plot, but the full frontal nudity probably didn’t have to be in there.
Seems to be a bit of an opinion splitter, this one. What I saw as a gripping character study some have seen as contrived awards bait. Regardless of your view, there’s no denying there is a nugget of gold in the middle of this: a phenomenal performance from Mr. Washington that will live long in the memory.