Is there any actor more likeable and/or more consistently entertaining than Denzel Washington? From Remember The Titans to Malcolm X, He Got Game, and his Oscar-winning turns in Glory and Training Day, Denzel Washington has proven time and time again that he is easily one of the most memorable actors of his generation. Even in less than impressive films like Déjà Vu, Out of Time, and the remakes of The Manchurian Candidate and The Taking of Pelham 123, Washington always shines thanks to his rare ability to draw you in with his brimming charisma and than floor you with his dramatic emotional range. It should really come as no surprise then to hear that Washington is back and better than ever in Flight, director Robert Zemeckis’ (Back To The Future, Forrest Gump, Cast Away) first live action film in over a decade. While the film may suffer a bit from a two-hour plus runtime, Washington is the film’s cruise control and his towering performance is well worth the price of admission and may land him yet another Oscar nomination for Best Actor come February.
In the film, Washington looses himself completely in the role of Whip Whitaker, a revered airline pilot who is on an internal free fall thanks to his severe substance abuse problems. When we first meet the haughtily charming Whitaker, he’s butt naked in bed with a stewardess, there’s beer cans all over his shoddy hotel room, and to start his day he snorts a line of cocaine from his ever abundant stash. Sound like a problem? Boy is it, and it’s one that has cost Whip his family and what could cost him his life. If you’ve watched the trailers, you already know that Whip flies a commercial airliner after said drinks and drugs, and though he saves almost everyone on board after the plane malfunctions and gets sent into a nose dive, alcohol comes up in his blood during his hospital stay, sending him on a journey of reflection and hopeful recovery as an investigation begins that could send him to prison for life.
It is here, in the film’s riveting 15-minute crash sequence, that Flight becomes, if only for a moment, one of the most gripping and harrowing experiences you’re bound to see all year. Long ago, Back To The Future proved that Zemeckis could handle tight-wound action (who can forget the lighting striking the Delorean?), but Flight’s crash sequence is unlike anything he’s ever done and unlike anything you’ve ever seen, a white-knuckled thrill ride that will pin you to your seat. By putting the camera right in the cockpit with Whip, Zemeckis creates a claustrophobic nightmare that could have many gasping for air much like the passengers. Though my fear of flying certainly didn’t help my cause, there’s no way Zemeckis’ electrifying direction during this scene won’t wow you and terrify you simultaneously; this is one opening scene for the ages!
If only Flight could sustain this gripping nature throughout its entirety. While all the previews for the film tout it as an action mystery centered around the plane crash, Flight is ultimately a deep character study of Whip’s damaged and addicted core, and while Washington creates a truly fascinating character, his supporting cast can’t really keep up. Though John Goodman scores some raucous laughs as Whip’s drug dealer, Harling Mays, turns by Don Cheadle and Melissa Leo are small and wasted, and a subplot involving a love interest for Whip, a drug addict named Nicole, is a secondary storyline that would have worked far better if the two remained friends and confidants as opposed to contrived lovers. It’s not that any of these supporting players are bad, Kelly Reilly is especially good in the vulnerably understated role of Nicole, but compared to Washington and his creation of Whip, they all seem rather uninteresting and hardly worth our time.
There’s also Zemeckis, whose direction, aside from that riveting opening, is frustratingly, well, Zemeckis-like. Now, I know I’m calling for a death sentence when I say that Forrest Gump is overrated, but, if I’m being honest, I really can’t help but say just that, and Flight ends up dragging a little for the same reasons that Zemeckis’ other character studies do. Like Gump and even Cast Away, Flight has a strong lead performer playing an intriguing central character but suffers from a long runtime and too much of the same thing. Over and over again, we see Whip drinking when he shouldn’t be and snorting cocaine when he really should be getting ready to face a hearing that could determine the rest of his life, and it all just gets too repetitive – we get it, Whip is an addict, just like Forrest Gump is a man with a low IQ and a big heart, so why the need to force feed us scene after scene of him succumbing to substance abuse? The first couple of times it’s shockingly effective, especially since it’s nice guy Denzel doing the drugs, but when we’re still getting scenes of Whip taking lines and bing drinking nearly two hours into the film, it’s all a bit too much and over done.
And yet, Flight is an enjoyable ride with Washington in the pilot seat. Like Viola Davis, Washington has a rare gift as an actor to convey any emotion through his big, bulgy eyes, and there’s no way you wont be moved by his turn here. Though Whip is perhaps one of the most unlikeable characters you’ll find on the screen this year, Washington has never been more charismatic, and his ever changing emotions, from cockiness to depression, anxiety, and regret, constantly keep us intrigued and invested in Whip’s bumpy road to recovery. Though not nearly as good, Washington in many ways reminded of Joaquin Phoenix’s damaging turn in The Master; by giving us a damaged soul who isn’t beyond the point of saving just yet, Washington turns Whip’s journey into an emotionally charged rollercoaster and one that parallels that thrilling crash sequence that opens the film. Ultimately, Flight lands smoothly despite a little turbulence and we all have Denzel Washington to thank for that. Denzel has long been one of my favorite actors and Flight not only confirms what a wonder he really is, but it also has me beyond excited for where his career will soar next.
Review by Zack Sharf