One hell of a bumpy ride

A pie-eyed Den­zel flies a plane – and keeps the story aloft – in Robert Ze­mekis’s new avi­a­tion drama. Don­ald Clarke takes a few mo­ments to lo­cate the near­est safety exit

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - REVIEWS -

FLIGHT Di­rected by Robert Ze­meckis. Star­ring Den­zel Washington, Don Chea­dle, Melissa Leo, Kelly Reilly, John Good­man, Bruce Green­wood

15A cert, gen re­lease, 138 min

It is hard to think of a film as weirdly paced or as oddly struc­tured as Robert Ze­meckis’s largely suc­cess­ful re­turn to live-ac­tion drama. The first 30 min­utes of Flight fea­ture one of the most thrilling and dis­turb­ing avi­a­tion catas­tro­phes ever com­mit­ted to cel­lu­loid. Then, hav­ing flung us to earth in such spec­tac­u­lar fash­ion, Mr Ze­meckis set­tles down to a per­fectly ac­cept­able, some­what flabby, oc­ca­sion­ally im­plau­si­ble tale of al­co­holism and re­demp­tion.

It’s not a game of two halves. It’s a game of a quar­ter and an­other three quar­ters. Hap­pily the flaw­less cen­tral per­for­mance by Den­zel Washington keeps the story aloft (fig­u­ra­tively, if not lit­er­ally) through­out the movie’s un­for­giv­ing run­ning time.

Washington is per­fect cast­ing for Capt Whip Whi­taker. That fa­mously sym­met­ri­cal ac­tor looks like a hero, but he can also ac­cess a mean, dis­agree­able streak. We first meet the air­line pi­lot hoover­ing co­caine and drain­ing beer bot­tles in a Florida mo­tel. An hour or so later, he’s pulling him­self into the cock­pit of an air­liner bound for At­lanta. As­pirin and black cof­fee are gulped back. His al­time­ter not yet sta­ble, Whip drains a few vodka minia­tures into a bot­tle of or­ange juice and ad­min­is­ters fur­ther self-med­i­ca­tion.

A thou­sand other pub­li­ca­tions hav­ing al­ready made the point, we should prob­a­bly avoid point­ing out that what fol­lows will pro­hibit the pic­ture from ever turn­ing up as on-flight en­ter­tain­ment (too late). Faced with ap­palling weather, Whip takes the coura­geous, pos­si­bly reck­less de­ci­sion to surge through the clouds at bulk head-jud­der­ing speed. The ruse works and the plane finds placid air. Some time later, how­ever, a cat­a­strophic mal­func­tion an­ni­hi­lates the hy­draulics and Whip is forced to take ab­surdly dras­tic mea­sures.

Is it pos­si­ble to fly a plane up­side down? Maybe so. Maybe not. All you need to know is that Ze­meckis and Washington con­vince us the op­er­a­tion might just be fea­si­ble.

There is much to pon­der in that se­quence. Ze­meckis and his writ­ers al­low us – with­out any prod­ding – to spec­u­late that booze may have blurred Whip’s per­cep­tion of peril and spurred him to­wards greater hero­ism. Then again, per­haps he caused the mal­func­tion by drunk­enly forc­ing the plane to the lim­its of its ca­pa­bil­i­ties af­ter take off.

At any rate, ini­tially cel­e­brated as a hero, Whip is soon forced to face up to dif­fi­cult ques­tions. A tox­i­col­ogy report de­liv­ers bad news. His co-pi­lot, who barely sur­vives the crash, threat­ens to spill fur­ther beans. Whip sinks into a morass of de­pres­sion, spir­its and self-pity.

Ze­meckis, who has spent the last decade di­rect­ing odd mo­tion­cap­ture pieces such as The Po­lar Ex­press and Be­owulf, doesn’t know what do with the film’s messy tail. Coming across like a vanilla Scors­ese, he leans the cam­era gen­tly to­wards drug tak­ers while flick­ing through your dad’s least ex­per­i­men­tal playlist. Gimme Shel­ter is there. So is What’s Go­ing On.

We do, in­evitably, end up in a court­room, but, be­fore that hap­pens, Whip is pro­pelled through a ho-hum se­ries of dis­con­nected ad­ven­tures that do lit­tle to il­lu­mi­nate the source of his neu­roses. A point­less con­ver­sa­tion with a can­cer pa­tient cries out to be cut. Kelly Reilly’s turn as a drug user, with whom Whip shacks up, could also be lifted cleanly from the nar­ra­tive with­out leav­ing any dan­gling ends. John Good­man doesn’t break sweat de­liv­er­ing his comic cut as a colour­ful dealer.

And yet. Washington works so hard and so ef­fec­tively that Flight re­mains watch­able. We’ve seen the great man be­ing a jerk. We’ve seen him sav­ing the day. But we’ve never be­fore seen him look so con­vinc­ingly pa­thetic. Even Spiel­berg’s Lin­coln feels less like a one-man show. We salute you, cap’n.

Fas­ten your seat­belts: Den­zel Washington in Flight

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