At this time, make sure Judge Erich Asperschlager is in an upright position.
"Nobody could have landed that plane like I did."
There is room in this world for movies big and small. Blockbusters that treat characters as archetypes and plot twists as checkpoints along an amusement park ride; as well as indie films that focus on realistic experiences of fully dimensional people. Each type of film requires a specific skill set, and while big movies can have small moments and small movies can build to big things, rarely does one filmmaker try to combine the two. It's even rarer when it works. Flight, written by John Gatins, tries to balance big action and broad story arcs with the intimate story of one man's struggle with alcoholism. Unfortunately, like the plane at the beginning of the film, it's doomed before takeoff.
Facts of the Case
Pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington, Crimson Tide) is a high-functioning alcoholic, going from days-straight booze and drug parties to flying commercial jets. During a routine flight from Florida to Georgia, Whip's plane suffers a mechanical failure that sends it into a nose dive. Through instinct, luck, and skill, he pulls off a rolling maneuver that brings the plane down in a field, saving all but six passengers. Although praised publicly as a hero, an internal investigation uncovers Whip's alcohol and drug use the day of the flight. He meets a fellow addict, Nicole (Kelly Reilly, Sherlock Holmes) who is trying to turn her life around, but as the pressure mounts and his hearing approaches Whip falls into a spiral of drug and alcohol abuse.
Flight marks Robert Zemeckis' return to live action movies after almost ten years working in motion capture animation. Going from a Disney family flick based on Charles Dickens' holiday classic to the story of an alcoholic pilot going toe to toe with his demons is a rocky first step back. Zemeckis' cartoon sensibilities bleed into the drama. While the film is supposed to feel raw and honest, the characters are so broadly drawn that it's difficult to invest in their struggle.
Flight is front-loaded, with the thrilling plane crash that starts the story. There are plenty of memorable movie plane crashes, including the one in Zemeckis' own Cast Away. Flight takes the terror from the cabin into the cockpit, showing us the crash from the pilots' perspectives. From the first moments of trouble to final impact, the crisis plays out in real time as Whip and his co-pilot do everything they can to avert disaster. It's great, tense filmmaking, helped by Zemeckis' experience as a pilot.
After the crash, we follow Whip as he responds to near death by trying to take control of his life. He gets rid of all his booze and pills in a clean-up attempt that lasts long enough for him to find out that blood samples taken at the hospital have tested positive for drugs and alcohol. The rest of the film is a cycle of drinking and lying that lasts too long with little payoff. Whip is surrounded by airline reps who are more interested in their case against the plane manufacturer than getting him the help he needs. There's nothing wrong with unlikeable characters in movies, but Flight doesn't do enough to support its ambiguity. The film has a murky morality not because it's going for realism, but because the filmmakers take shortcuts along the way to a conventional Hollywood finale.
That Flight doesn't fall apart completely in the second half is a credit to the actors, especially Denzel Washington. Like the character he plays, Washington is among the best at what he does and he throws himself fully into this brutal portrait of addiction and alcohol abuse. The movie features solid turns from actors like Bruce Greenwood, Don Cheadle, Melissa Leo, and John Goodman—who does what he can with a ridiculous, ponytailed drug dealer. The person who comes closest to matching Washington's impact is Kelly Reilly as Nicole, a recovering addict who begins a relationship with Whip after meeting in the hospital. There are problems of expediency with her arc, but Nicole's own experience with addiction makes her the only person who sees Whip as he really is.
Flight comes to Blu-ray with a sharp 2.35:1 AVC-encoded 1080p transfer that captures the film's subdued natural look. Colors and detail are strong even without bright hues and high contrast. It's a great example of a digital workflow that feels like traditional film. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is clear, and powerful when it needs to be. The crash sequence fills the room with strong bass and sonic chaos. Since it's a drama, much of the film is just people talking, with surround effects kept to a minimum, but everyone is easy to understand and well-balanced with Alan Silvestri's score and classic rock tunes.
Flight on Blu-ray disc includes the film on DVD, codes for digital and Ultraviolet copies, and four featurettes on the main disc:
• "Origins of Flight" (10:29): Writer Gatins and Robert Zemeckis talk about the original ideas for the story, the complexity of the characters, and their goal of creating an R-rated drama about moral grey areas.
• "Making of Flight" (11:31): A good overview of the filmmaking process, including casting, set dressing a fake airline, and the post-9/11 regulations that forced them to build their own tarmac instead of shooting in a real airport.
• "Anatomy of a Plane Crash" (7:46): The careful planning, storyboarding and mechanical rigging necessary to safely film a harrowing inverted plane crash.
• "Q&A Highlights" (14:18): An edited version of a Flight panel moderated by John Horn of the Los Angeles Times, with most of the major cast members except (sadly) Denzel Washington, who was ill.
Robert Zemeckis wanted to tackle something meaty for his return to live-action films. Although Flight deals with a most serious topic, it does so in a way that feels like Hollywood fantasy. Denzel Washington's powerful performance isn't enough to overcome the muddled message and an unearned ending that ties things up too neatly. Picking up the pieces after a crash shouldn't be this easy.
A bumpy ride.
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