Denzel Washington Takes “Flight”
I was skeptical when I first heard that the 50th Annual New York Film Festival would close with director Robert Zemeckis’ Flight, starring Denzel Washington as an embattled airline pilot. It sounded like an awfully mainstream choice for an event that prides itself on exploring the cinematic cutting edge. I’ve never considered Zemeckis much of an artiste—he’s a master craftsman at best (Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Cast Away), and it’s been a while since he’s done anything of interest to anybody but digital-tech enthusiasts (The Polar Express, Beowulf). And as I wrote earlier this year, Washington has mostly been playing it safe lately with middlebrow thrillers like Safe House and Unstoppable.
Well, after catching Flight at last night’s NYFF premiere, I’m pleased to report my preconceived notions came crashing down from nearly the first frame. After his last three films, culminating in Jim Carrey’s A Christmas Carol, Zemeckis seemed like a kid who couldn’t stop playing with his new toys—motion-capture cameras—and would never work with real live actors again. But he coaxes a genuine flesh-and-bloodshot-eyes performance from Washington as Whip, who opens the film by drinking heavily and doing lines of coke with his flight-attendant bedmate (My Name is Earl’s Nadine Velazquez—I didn’t recognize with her clothes off!) before stepping into the cockpit. The film’s trailer leaves it up in the air, but it’s clear from the start of the movie that Whip is guilty of flying while intoxicated. The tantalizing question is whether his impaired condition contributed to the jet’s miraculous (yet still tragic) crash landing.
The crash sequence itself is a virtuoso piece of filmmaking, but Flight‘s white-knuckle ride has only just begun. Whip, who’s managed to function for decades despite his alcoholism, veers wildly off course after the NTSB starts to examine his pre-crash behavior. He hooks up with a junkie (Sherlock Holmes‘ Kelly Reilly, a revelation) he meets in the hospital and struggles to stay sober until the federal hearing, despite the ulterior-motivated efforts of an old pilot pal (the always-solid Bruce Greenwood) and a slick lawyer (Washington’s Devil in a Blue Dress running buddy Don Cheadle, doing a spin on his House of Lies truth-mangler). His attempts to get clean are impeded by a larger-than-life drug-dealing cohort, played by John Goodman, who might just steal an Oscar nomination along with all of his scenes.
Washington is almost assured of a Best Actor nod; he’ll likely compete with Lincoln‘s Daniel Day-Lewis, The Sessions‘ John Hawkes, The Silver Lining Playbook‘s Bradley Cooper and possibly Hyde Park on Hudson‘s Bill Murray. Zemeckis could earn his first shot at Best Director since winning for 1994’s Forrest Gump, but the real surprise contender could be screenwriter John Gatins, who takes a quantum leap forward from the simple-minded sports scripts he’s been known for (Coach Carter, Real Steel) with this complicated morality play. One can only hope Zemeckis will continue to seek out such mature material and scrap his plans for his next film—a 3D remake of Yellow Submarine. Zemeckis has long had a Beatles fixation, from his debut film I Wanna Hold Your Hand to an inside-joke elevator-music version of “With a Little Help from My Friends” in Flight. It’s been a long and winding road, but if he makes more smart movies for grownups, Zemeckis may finally get back to where he once belonged.
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