Silver Screen: Flight ****
Flight is an interesting paradox: A movie about the evils of alcohol that will almost certainly compel you to have a couple of drinks next time you board an airplane. It's also a thorny morality play that, despite going where you would expect in the final minutes, takes some interesting diversions to get there and along the way deals in ambiguities rare to a star-driven studio picture.
The first act is fantastic. In the opening scene, Denzel Washington's William Whip Whitman wakes up groggy and hungover in a dimly lit hotel room with a beautiful young woman (Nadine Velazquez). In the next few moments they casually take hits off a joint and do the last bumps of cocaine off the bedside table while they dress, her in a stewardess uniform and him in pilot blues.
Director Robert Zemeckis, not known for his subtleties, does a nice job right away of avoiding overstated Just Say No imagery, depicting the druggy morning as languid habit rather than a stylized, rapidly edited montage of sniffing nostrils and dilating pupils. Whip's looking pretty good when he rolls into the airport, and he's effortlessly charming during his chat with the passengers aboard his plane, even while he uses the trip out of the cockpit as an excuse to covertly mix himself a stiff screwdriver. Zemeckis slowly but steadily builds the tension as worsening weather conditions and Whip's drinking seem set on a collision course.
Tragedy strikes, but it's pure coincidence. A mechanical failure locks up the controls and leaves Whip and his frantic copilot (The Hurt Locker's Brian Geraghty) nearly powerless as the plane plummets toward the ground. The thoroughly inebriated Whip never loses his cool and executes a series of wildly improbable maneuvers that crash lands the plane in a field, sparing the life of nearly everyone onboard.
Post-crash, Whip is the hero pilot who saved ninety-six of 102 lives with his expertise. The bosses at the airline and the federal investigators into the crash (led by Melissa Leo) know the truth, however. Blood tests taken just after the crash show Whip to be heavily intoxicated, and even as his union-appointed representative (Bruce Greenwood) and lawyer (Don Cheadle) work to cover up the toxicology reports, survivor testimony and evidence found aboard the plane threatens to reveal the truth of his condition.
Whip survived the crash, but more disaster looms on the horizon: If he doesn't convince the investigators, he could wind up in jail for decades, but to steer clear of the charges he'll also have to rid himself of the drugs and alcohol that have been a constant presence in his life.
The challenge for Flight is that it opens with a half-hour of tension that climaxes in a spectacular payoff, then has to follow that with another hour and a half of brooding character drama. That does make the film feel a little thick in the middle, but the impressive script from writer John Gatins consistently avoids conventional structure or easy answers. The obvious impulse would be to keep the crash off-camera until flashback sequences near the end for a more bombastic finish, but that would have been a mistake. Similarly, Whip is given the romantic lead you might expect-- Kelly Reilly as Nicole, an addict who meets Whip as they both struggle through their first days of sobriety-- but the film never posits their relationship as his salvation or turns away from the ugly realities of Reilly's former life.
This is an impressive outing for Zemeckis, who is typically a director more interested in special-effects pageantry than moral murkiness. There are still a few forehead-slapping moments, usually involving the Baby Boomer-friendly soundtrack, especially too-on-the-nose musical cues. When John Goodman's gregarious drug dealer enters the hospital to the blaring sounds of “Sympathy for the Devil,” Zemeckis might as well provide a title card explaining how we should feel about the character, while the elevator music chiming “With a Little Help from My Friends” as Washington gets high to clear his head for a deposition is less blunt but still too cute by half.
Still, a few cheesy moments don't distract from an otherwise powerful drama that raises at least as many questions as it answers. Flight's most intriguing ruminations are more about the roots of responsibility rather than its demands. When the plane goes down near a church, you might expect oncoming religiosity, and that happens, but Gatins and Zemeckis aren't giving up too much ground, as the film's designated mouthpiece of Christian moralism, the copilot and his wife, also happen to be its most unlikable.
The real showpiece in the movie is not the harrowing and wonderfully rendered plane crash sequence, but Denzel's fantastic, nuanced performance. He never overtly impels us to like or dislike Whip. The script hints at his past without going into a full Freudian examination, and Washington takes those suggestions of character traits and lets them exist onscreen without judging them in either direction. It's the crux of Flight, which works equally well as a low-speed drama, character study, and moral Rorschach test.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.