Film review: The Great Denzel Washington Takes ‘Flight’

FLIGHT 1Flight, Robert Zemeckis’ first live-action film in 12 years, could have been little more than a conventional thriller with some eye-popping early visual/special effects. With the great Denzel Washington onboard, however, the movie becomes an engrossing character study.

The two-time Oscar winner (Glory, Training Day) could well cop his sixth Academy Award nomination. The role of troubled pilot Whip Whittaker is the kind of flawed character he’s excelled at throughout his career – a man whose inner demons wage war with the confident and charismatic façade he struggles to present.

FLIGHT 2The outward signs of those inner demons are apparent when we first meet Whittaker in an Orlando, Fla., hotel room about two hours before he’s scheduled to pilot a passenger flight to Atlanta. He’s bleary-eyed from a booze-and-drug-filled night spent with one of his flight crew (Nadine Velazquez) and manages a tense phone call with his ex-wife (Garcelle Beauvais) while he finishes a beer and takes a hit off a joint the woman offers him. After the phone call he does a line of cocaine before dressing in his captain’s uniform to take 102 souls on a 52-minute flight.

It turns out the former Navy flyboy is an incredible pilot nevertheless – after experiencing severe turbulence shortly after takeoff he steers the plane into a pocket of calm airspace, then makes a nothing-short-of-miraculous forced landing after mechanical failures put the jet into a terrifying downward spiral. His calm manner and brilliant maneuvering save all but six lives.

FLIGHT 3In the immediate aftermath Whittaker gets the Sully Sullenberger treatment – and a refresh of his narcotic needs from pal Harling Mays (John Goodman) – but understandably clouds soon form on his horizon after a toxicology test reveals what was in his system at the time of the accident. Enter friend and union representative Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood) with no-nonsense lawyer Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle), determined to insure that the National Transportation Safety Board hearing into the matter (lead in a fleeting but favorable appearance by Melissa Leo’s character) will find the plane’s manufacturer at fault before deciding the hopped-up captain might have negatively contributed to the nightmarish hop between Orlando and Atlanta.

During his convalescence Whittaker meets Nicole Maggen (Kelly Reilly), an addict whose heart-of-gold concern for him may be his saving grace. There’s only so much others can do, of course, and the film turns on whether Whittaker will choose to change course or maintain his downward heading.

FLIGHT 4It’s one thing to see character thoughts register on the face of an actor; that’s readily accomplished by many performers. It’s when a character’s inner conflicts register over the entire body, shaping not only a performer’s actions but the reactions of those around him, that we can completely connect with that character and the story that role seeks to further. Watch the often slow, painful movements of Whittaker and you’re not just seeing the results of injuries from the accident – you’re seeing inside a being that has inflicted great damage on his heart and soul.

Washington’s incredibly moving performance is complemented by the work of those around him in one of the year’s best ensemble casts. In lesser hands some of the supporting roles could have become quite stereotypical – Flight doesn’t break new ground when it comes to having a love interest, buddies, potential antagonists and other staples of Hollywood fables. But from Reilly, Greenwood, Cheadle, Goodman and others one gets the best out of these parts, and there’s even a bonus in the wry-observations-from-a-dying-man department courtesy James Badge Dale’s enjoyable scene as a terminal cancer patient.

FLIGHT 5Zemeckis has wisely utilized the services of Cinematographer Don Burgess, who has collaborated on all of his live-action films since Forrest Gump. The two create shots that glide through, over and under the action; Production Designer Nelson Coates, Special Effects Supervisor Michael Lantieri, Visual Effects Supervisor Kevin Baillie and a host of others should also be recognized for creating the “world” of Flight that includes not just sets but visual and special effects for the airline accident sequence that are astonishing (and scary enough to give anyone a fear of flying).

Screenwriter John Gatins has a good ear for believable dialogue, and wisely provides humor to relieve the tension when appropriate. It’s true he could have told his story in less than two hours plus – the Nicole subplot certainly fleshes out her character but it’s not necessary to have as much of it as appears in the final cut – but he does take the tale into deeper waters than the movie’s trailer and other advertising might have one believe.

FLIGHT 6Flight is a good return to live-action films for Zemeckis and a great statement from one of America’s finest actors. Washington elevates this film with his formidable skills; ultimately it’s a solid start for the awards-season slate that releases over the next two months.

Flight (www.paramount.com/flight) opens nationwide today (Friday, Nov. 2). For locations and showtimes in the greater Nashville area check out the websites of Regal Cinemas (www.regmovies.com), Carmike Cinemas (www.carmike.com) and Malco Theatres (www.malco.com). Rated R for drug and alcohol abuse, language, sexuality/nudity and an intense action sequence, 2 hours 18 min. Directed by Robert Zemeckis; written by John Gatins. Starring Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood, Kelly Reilly, John Goodman, Melissa Leo, Tamara Tunie, Nadine Velazquez, Brian Geraghty, Garcelle Beauvais and James Badge Dale.

 

*Photos by Robert Zuckerman courtesy Paramount Pictures.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).