Some movies are meant to make the viewer think, while others are meant to make the viewer feel. One of the biggest challenges in judging a movie’s quality is figuring out whether the movie is too cold or too sentimental. Robert Zemeckis is never on the cold side, always making crowd-pleasing movies with every outing, like Steven Spielberg. Whether he is focused on iconic teen films (Back to the Future), emotional Oscar bait (Forrest Gump, Cast Away), or children’s films (Polar Express, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?), he delivers what he intends to deliver.
Flight is certainly in the emotional Oscar-type drama category, but that is not a slight against it, really. Flight works like a Foo Fighters record. They are both unsubtle, emotionally-resonant forms of entertainment that you’ve seen before yet still return to. Flight offers nothing new to the cinema landscape, just like the Foo Fighters to rock music, instead opting to act as a big dumb rock album, as seen by its soundtrack featuring the Barenaked Ladies and too-obviously used Rolling Stones songs. But do you know what? There is nothing wrong with big dumb rock records. The film industry needs all types of films, and when a big dumb rock record is well-produced by A-List hands, there is plenty of enjoyment to be had.
Now Flight’s early crash sequence is amazing. It is terrifying and earns all of its intensity and emotional impact. The camera-work and the production are led by Denzel Washington’s calm-yet-terrified performance. Really, Washington takes this early highpoint in the film and uses the same sort of cool on the outside yet emotionally explosive on the inside to help parts in the movie that would have otherwise sagged. The crash scene, though, acts as a hyperactive album-opener on our previously mentioned big dumb rock record, pumping up everyone’s blood to prepare them for a plethora of jams that are familiar and usually welcome.
Denzel Washington is the charismatic front man you want leading you through your entertainment. He plays an alcoholic who hurts those around him, yet he plays one hell of a pilot who saves the lives of about a hundred people when his plane malfunctions. Washington hits all of the right notes, making you love and worry for his character as he makes bad decision after bad decision. He gives his best performance since Training Day. Meanwhile, John Goodman is the free-spirit enabler that is always there to supply Washington’s Whip Whitaker character with booze and drugs, playing the part of tempter. There are other notable performances, such as Don Cheadle’s, but overall, this is Washington’s chance to shine. He even outshines Robert Zemeckis, leading the viewer to forget who directed Flight as he or she watches it. It is Washington’s eyes, especially in his final, if not predictable, climatic scene. He is drunk and high and torn apart inside by his actions throughout his life. You see his pain, you want him to be a better man, but you never hate him. You merely pity a man who is so strong and such a force on people’s lives but who cannot control his worst urges. In this climax, we have that one last ballad on our big dumb rock record, having us sing along to its familiar melody that still manages to illicit emotion in us.
But it is with this storyline, really what 80% of the movie focuses on, that Flight finds its pitfalls. You have heard the story a million times, about a substance abuser who comes to the conclusion that their path is wrong and they fix themselves at the last possible moment before they’re about to make an irreversible decision. Whip Whitaker faces that dilemma at the end of the film, but you know the choice he is going to make before he makes it, because, again, you’ve heard this story. The scenes after he admits his problem are tacked on and act as a short, pleasant number after our familiar ballad that would have been a better ending to our record—or in this case the movie Flight.
You’ve heard this story in Lifetime movies. This is what keeps Flight from succeeding as well as it could have. I assumed the film was going to be about whether the ends justify the means, whether you let the alcoholic free because he saved lives, but the movie doesn’t deal with moral ambiguities. And I like having my expectations flipped, but they were not flipped here, but instead let down. Zemeckis takes his stance and howls the solution in your face for the entirety of Flight’s runtime with the voice of Dave Grohl or Mick Jagger or Roger Daltry.
Is Flight for everyone? No. It is not even for my usual tastes, really, but I can’t ignore the fact that I was entertained for the most part and that multiple factors help the movie soar past its potential Lifetime-esque substance abuse story. And those factors?—the blood-pumping “album” opener and “front man” Denzel Washington’s keyed-in performance. Whitaker spirals deeper and deeper, though Washington never lets you grow bored with his character, even when you know you should be bored. Because he is that great of an actor, who will likely and deservedly be nominated for plenty of awards come awards season.
I give this film a Strong 7.