This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 3rd March 2013
Denzel Washington thrives on the big roles, the complicated, flawed characters, the opportunities where he can exercise the intriguing clash between his inherent charisma and the bad guy within (he won his second Oscar as the corrupt LA police detective from Training Day). He is box-office magic, a man for all seasons, and arguably one of the few true “movie stars” of today.
The opening of his latest “tortured soul” drama sets the tone brilliantly. Captain Whip Whitaker wakes groggily next to a beautiful woman, swigs from a beer bottle, snorts a line of coke, and sets off for his day at work. As he swings round a corner with supreme confidence and walks towards the camera in his pilot’s get-up, we are simultaneously appalled and thrilled.
Soon he will be flying a domestic passenger jet with 102 souls a short distance across America. He can’t imagine that the plane will go down, and in due course his high-functioning lack of sobriety will rear up and bite him.
Director Robert Zemeckis boasts a varied body of work, from seminal 80s flick Back to the Future to What Lies Beneath, Castaway and even Jodie Foster’s alien-chasing movie, Contact.
He also knows how to roll out a blockbuster. A solid cast (Bruce Greenwood for grit, John Goodman for flash); a straightforward but involving premise (where once Tom Hanks entertained us, alone on an island, for 2 hours, here Whitaker’s principal conundrum is whether to tell the truth, or let his addiction conquer him). Zemeckis’ regular composer, Alan Sylvestri, appears to have written four movie soundtracks a year since the mid-80s. The legendary Don Burgess shot it. This is an A-team of movie-makers, telling an everyman’s story.
Addiction dramas are nothing new, and often make for uncomfortable viewing though they are undeniably good fodder for carrying the audience along with every “will he, won’t he” moment the protagonist approaches a liquor cabinet (captured with nail-biting tension here). Whitaker’s trajectory from arrogant denial to rock-bottom and potential redemption, while a staple of the genre, is nonetheless gripping. Though not an overtly sympathetic character, it is impossible not to fall under the spell of Washington’s Oscar-nominated, charismatic, high-functioning egoist. Cleverly, at the same time we are left under no doubt about the destruction his substance abuse has caused him and others in his life.
Of course, he can’t do it alone. The supporting cast is universally excellent, notably Kelly Reilly’s ex-addict whose attraction to Whitaker, while cliched, is understandable, and Don Cheadle’s matter-of-fact, morally pliable lawyer. Even John Goodman’s shock-jock drug dealer provides welcome light relief, the perfect comic foil to Washington’s grim concern.
Inevitably for an addiction story, Flight strays into mawkishness towards the end, though one wonders (particularly for a major Hollywood picture) how else it could go. It is to Washington’s credit that he flies it just this side of saccharine, and Zemeckis’ decision to avoid unnecessary soundtrack and hammered-home monologues is admirable.