What can’t Denzel do? He can stop a train, he can land a plane, and in the case of the latter, which he does on Flight, Robert Zemeckis’s first live motion movie since 2000’s Castaway, he can elevate a disappointingly conventional disaster-movie-of-the-week/addiction drama to compelling watching all by the force of his charisma.
Flight starts as the story of Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington), a hero pilot who manages to land a badly malfunctioning plane under extreme circumstances no other pilot could have done. They know this because the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Bureau) task force that investigates the crash (a routine procedure for all plane crashes) puts ten veteran pilots into a flight simulation mimicking the exact circumstances Whitaker suffered, and found that none of them could land the plane safely as Whitaker did.
But we the audience knows what the public does not, that Whitaker is a drunk, and drank heavily not only the night before the flight, but the morning of, and even during the flight itself. So the movie quickly evolves (or is it devolve) into an addiction drama. For the question begs to be asked: Does the addiction story ramp up the plane crash story, or drag it down to a commonplace redemption tale? The answer is: both.
Unstoppable, the 2010 train drama in which Washington played a working class joe who just knows how to do his job really, really well, and keep his cool even better than that, kept mostly to the confines of its train story, and the end result was fairly simplistic, a story that felt perfect for ten year old boys. So you can see the temptation of complicating matters with a little alcoholism. But we know the arc of the addiction drama so well.
We know that though things look very bad for Whitaker (and for his co-substance-abuser, Reilly’s drug addict Nicole), they’ll get much worse, at the very worst possible instant, before they suddenly get better. Not to mention that scenes of substance abuse, for all their sordid excess and seeming dramatic potential, induce a been-there/done-that jadedness in the audience. We have seen this all before, and we know how it will end.
To be sure, this movie is a first-class operation, with such prodigious depth of casting—John Goodman, Don Cheadle, Kelly Reilly, Bruce Greenwood—that it can afford to use an incredible talent like Melissa Leo for only five minutes. Zemeckis handles action with aplomb, and the initial crash sequence is masterfully done and absolutely gripping. The movie at all times looks great, is edited sharply, and zips along. And now we come to Washington.
Despite the fact that he’d be best served with screenplays with triple the dramatic and moral complexity as this, he has no problem keeping all eyes on him in Flight. He is the absolute still center of this movie, so magnetic, cunning and relaxed in his performance that he is simply a pleasure to watch. Now imagine what he could do with something truly deserving of his gifts.