Zemeckis reaches new cinematic heights with 'Flight'

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Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

Ever since 2000’s “Cast Away,” director Robert Zemeckis has stuck to developing motion capture cinema, most notably with 2007’s preposterously violent adaptation of “Beowulf.” “Flight” is his return to working with live action, and it is a triumphant foray into the field where he made his name, featuring some stylish, effective direction and a powerhouse performance from Denzel Washington.  

We’re introduced to Washington’s wonderfully named Whip Whitaker as he stumbles out of a flight attendant’s bed, does a line of cocaine, has a drink and boards his morning flight. Oh, and he’s the pilot. When the plane crashes, Whip is able to save most of the passengers and crew, but finds himself under public scrutiny once a pesky toxicology report is released. With a whip-smart lawyer (Don Cheadle) and an airline official (Bruce Greenwood) in his corner, Whip prepares for a public hearing while struggling with his alcoholism.

Audiences are used to seeing Washington as an assured, confident man in complete control of his situation, and “Flight” plays into that expectation rather brilliantly. Whip is in control, as evidenced by his ability to land the plane without killing everyone on board. Once Whip is forced to confront his drinking problem, Washington has some truly fascinating material to play with as Whip’s control starts to slip away.

As Whip begins to spiral into oblivion, faced with the realities of his problems, Washington is completely magnetic. Whip is helpless in his struggle against alcohol, and watching that sense of hopelessness and inevitability sink into Washington’s eyes is alarming, to say the least. It’s a remarkably likable but challenging performance, and Washington crafts a compelling hero in a film where the central question is whether we should be rooting for him at all.

It would be easy for “Flight” to become a one-man show, but the supporting cast is far too engaging to allow that to happen. The mostly unknown Kelly Reilly shines as a fellow addict whom Whip befriends, and the wounded tenderness she brings to the role is moving. John Goodman is an adrenaline shot to the arm of “Flight,” roaring through his handful of scenes with reckless, hilarious abandon, and it’s always a joy to see him pop up.

However, James Badge Dale blindsides the audience with his one-scene role as a cancer patient who runs into Washington and Reilly in a hospital stairwell. It’s a small part, but Dale makes it his own, bringing such life and vitality to the flickering candle of his character’s existence. His brief intrusion in the film is thematically and emotionally vital.

Clearly, Zemeckis hasn’t forgotten how to coax strong performances from his actors, but it’s also nice to see he hasn’t forgotten how to direct without a computer. His staging of the film’s pivotal crash is stunning, an absurdly intense sequence made even more so by Washington’s steely reserve. Even when the film is a bit more grounded, Zemeckis is at the top of his game, finding interesting ways to portray Whip’s wobbling sobriety and infusing tension into a foregone conclusion.

“Flight” isn’t the film that it’s been advertised as, and that’s not as big a problem as you’d think — thanks to one of the year’s best performances from Denzel Washington and a spectacular return to form for Robert Zemeckis. It’s much more drama than thriller, but it’s a strong, involving and refreshingly adult film, a mature examination of addiction that dares to ask some uneasy questions.  

Printed on Friday, November 2, 2012 as: Zemeckis soars to cinematic heights