It’s rare to see a mainstream studio release as wildly schizophrenic as Robert Zemeckis’ maddeningly inconsistent Flight. It constantly flits between genres – serious addiction drama, black comedy, wacky stoner comedy, legal thriller, romance, aviation disaster thriller etc… For a while, the film’s offbeat tone is interesting, and threatens to do surprising things with its familiar setups. Alas, the film doesn’t coalesce into a satisfying whole.
Denzel Washington plays pilot Whip Whitaker, whom we meet indulging in post-coital alcohol and cocaine right before he takes command of a commercial flight. After sneaking a few more vodkas when the plane reaches cruising altitude, he decides to leave things in the hands of his co-pilot (Brian Geraghty) while he takes a nap. Unfortunately, a mechanical failure sends the plane into freefall and Whip is forced to make a miraculous emergency landing.
Said emergency landing is the film’s major set piece, and it represents the film’s first-act inciting incident. And it’s wonderfully directed – tense, coherent and surprising. Indeed it might be one of the better spectacle moments from recent mainstream cinema. It’s afterwards that the film shoots off in altogether less accomplished directions.
Despite the media hailing him as a hero, Whip is forced to confront his substance abuse issues after a toxicology report shows-up a predictably high blood alcohol level. Lawyer Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle) is called in by the pilot’s union to try and protect Whip during the inevitable investigation. Meanwhile, Whip also meets recovering addict Nicole (Kelly Reilly), and the two hit it off. Oh, and John Goodman plays a cartoonish drug dealer for some reason.
The fact that the film descends into broad farce every time Goodman is on screen is indicative of one of Flight’s major problems – it simply never settles on what it wants to be. As Whitaker’s situation becomes more desperate, and his addiction situation spirals out of control, it finally seems as if we’re about to be granted a familiar yet dark and uncompromising addiction study. Whit increasingly seems beyond help, and appears destined to be consumed by his self-destructive nature. Is it possible that the film is going to bypass convention and give us a genuinely devastating look at substance addiction?
Given the presence of militant sentimentalist Zemeckis (he of Forrest Gump and Castaway fame – Back to the Future is but a distant memory) in the director’s chair, it’s no spoiler to say that the film wearily conforms to crowd-pleasing formula. What’s most disappointing about this is that the film would undoubtedly have been more interesting had it tackled its themes and characters in a more confrontational manner. A climactic courtroom scene, for example, teases a potentially provocative and amoral ending. A redemptive reversal, alas, guarantees there’s no such luck.
The cast do relatively good job given the limiting material, and the magnificent first act set piece and a few moments of brief insight mean Flight is by no means worthless. It’s well-paced – 140 minutes fly by, if you’ll excuse the pun – and some moments of dark comedy are genuinely amusing. But a crippling identity crisis and reversion to sentimentality ensure that overall it is so much less satisfying than it could have, should have, would have been. Flight all-too-often comes crashing down when it should really be soaring.
15A (see IFCO website for details)
Flight is released on 1st February 2013