Flight

(2012) *** R
138 min. Paramount Pictures. Director: Robert Zemeckis. Cast: Nadine Velazquez, Denzel Washington, Carter Cabassa, Don Cheadle, John Goodman.

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Hollywood has given us Bad Santa and Bad Teacher, but are you ready for "Bad Pilot"? Flight puts Denzel Washington in the driver's seat—with director Robert Zemeckis as his co-pilot—for a dizzying journey into fear. Zemeckis typically invokes cinematic technique ranging on spectacle, and Flight delivers on that promise in an extended and masterful aerial sequence, a crash scenario that characters will parse over the two hours to follow.

John Gatins' screenplay begins by establishing Washington's Captain "Whip" Whitaker as lingeringly liquored up and therefore in need of a leveling cocaine bump before striding confidently to the cockpit. One can imagine Zemeckis grinning behind the camera: after twelve years devoted to motion-capture CGI moviemaking, including two family-friendly PG adventures, he kicks off Flight with Washington waking up to a naked woman and a line of coke. Following an ominously repeated reminder of "102 souls on board," Whip takes a couple of shots of oxygen, takes to the air, then takes a nap, waking to big trouble necessitating some highly skilled, Sully Sullenberger-style heroics.

What follows is, in part, an exploration of what it means not to be one of those in-vogue superheroes, but a hero in a real world of human frailty and grey areas. Flight also concerns the understandably elaborate fallout of an aerial disaster: the investigation, the intense media scrutiny, the judgment within the airline industry and without, in the case of criminal negligence. As Whip's new defense attorney (Don Cheadle) pithily puts it, "Death demands responsibility."

In truth, though, Flight shows only peripheral interest in those fascinating subjects. Rather, the picture serves as yet another dramatization (historically beloved by Oscar) of the destructive and self-destructive trajectory of the addict. Whip unquestionably is heading for a personal crash of his own, and if he's to avoid it, he will need to embrace humility and accept help. But the inconvenient truth is that Whip is probably right when he insists, "Someone put me in a broken plane" and that "No one else could have landed that plane like I did."

Ironically, spectacular disaster has, in many ways, only emboldened Whip's denial, his self-assurance that he can handle anything on his own. Even as the shadows encroach on Whip and he determines to hide from the world, a ray of light arrives in the form of freshly clean drug addict Nicole (Kelly Reilly), who gently tries to help Whip to see the dead end ahead.

Flight has its share of annoyances: Nicole's clichéd storyline; an unambiguous endorsement of AA as a one-size-fits-all cure-all; Zemeckis playing into, rather than against, wild detours into comedy (involving John Goodman as Whip's merry dealer); a lazy overreliance on source music, and Alan Silvestri's alternately thudding and mawkish score; and the transparent attempt to lard up the Forrest Gump director's latest with Lieutenant Dans and Bubbas (i.e. colorful supporting characters like James Badge Dale's voluble cancer patient).

Despite those misguided commercial instincts, Flight offers much that's productively unsettling, anchored by Washington's old-school movie-star performance, filigreed with some quietly excellent supporting work from the likes of Bruce Greenwood and Peter Gerety, and culminating in a Scent of a Woman-style moral climax that offers a more relatable opportunity for modern heroism: the chance to take responsibility.

[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]

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