Directed by Robert Zemeckis
For almost a decade, Robert Zemeckis has worked in a motion-capture playground, directing three features with actors filmed in special suits and translated into computer animation. Some of that work was exhilarating; since the mid-80s he's thrived on turning technical and logistical challenges into crackling entertainment, and motion-capture opened up the possibilities of 10-minute takes or landscape-crossing zooms. Yet there was also something untethered about this technical freedom; his virtual camera could do anything, with the side effect of making "anything" look less astonishing.
Flight is Zemeckis's return to live action, and his film since Cast Away to feel the pull of gravity. Gravity, in fact, exerts itself all over, most literally in a long opening sequence that follows Captain Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) from treating his morning hangover with more cocaine and alcohol to his pilot's seat on a commercial airline to the middle of a terrifying aerial disaster. Cutting between Whitaker and a seemingly unrelated junkie, Nicole (Kelly Reilly), Zemeckis goes seamier than he ever has before. The plane crash stuff was covered in Cast Away, but here it's chased with hard drugs, nudity, and the general sense that the characters, not just the plane, are coming apart. The film's first 30 or 40 minutes are less showy than some of Zemeckis's past technical tricks, but assured and grabby as hell.
Whitaker, anointed a hero in the press, tries to keep it together as the NTSB investigates the plane crash, and this is where more gravity comes in, pushing guilt on top of a guy who's become accustomed to shaking it off. He's further torn by the notion that, inebriated or not, his cockpit work saved lives. Washington, whose moral shading is underrated, makes Whitaker sort of a more tortured version of the characters he played for Tony Scott. He's cocky and often charming, a straight shooter, but his addictions and attempts to hide them have piled so high and heavy on his soul that Whitaker can barely tell who he is underneath. His charm turns out to require a never-ending hustle.
Flight, then, becomes the story of an addict faced with a rough road to recovery—and unlike anything Zemeckis has directed before. The serious intimacy of the piece makes it surprisingly harrowing for a big-budget studio picture, but the screenplay by John Gatins doesn't peel back layers of revelations about Whitaker; it pretty much sets his problems on the table in the first section, which leaves only their depth to be revealed, often through repetition. Zemeckis brings a lot of life to a morality play that probably didn't need to run 140 minutes, though he can't always nail the right balance of swagger and darkness—his Scorsese-ish music cues (even including Marty's oft-favored "Gimme Shelter") are catchy but sometimes on-the-nose. Still, Washington is excellent, and supported by smart, tangy performances by Don Cheadle (as a lawyer on his side), John Goodman (as Whitaker's longtime buddy), and Reilly as the fellow addict who crosses Whitaker's path. At its best, Flight brings personal, serious-minded urgency to the business of cleaning up. After doggedly pursuing spectacular fun, Zemeckis makes sobriety look stirring.
Opens November 2