Friday, November 9, 2012

Fly the Friendly Skies

For over twenty years, Denzel Washington has been among the best actors in Hollywood, and for good reason. Cry Freedom; Glory; Malcolm X; Philadelphia; Crimson Tide; Courage Under Fire; The Preacher's Wife; Devil in a Blue Dress; The Hurricane; Remember the Titans; Training Day; Antwone Fisher; American Gangster; The Great Debaters; The Book of Eli; Safe House; if that list seems like a random mishmash of titles, it's because Washington seems perfectly at home whether he's playing a military man in an action thriller or a blue collar detective in a noire mystery or an angel in a romantic fantasy. That he will be remembered as one of the premiere black actors is almost a shame; his talent crosses color barriers, and hopefully history won't remember him as "just" a black actor but a wonderful performer overall. Sure, he's seen his share of mediocre movies (seriously, what actor doesn't have a list of embarrassments?), but he always manages to bring his "A" game to whatever project he's on, and raises the quality of the film by sheer force of will. That's certainly the case with Flight, which also has the distinction of being the first live-action film directed by Robert Zemeckis in over a decade.

"Not sure that's quite enough flattery"
William "Whip" Whitaker (Washington) is a veteran commercial airline pilot making a routine flight from Orlando to Atlanta when the plane he is captaining suddenly fails and goes into a dive with 106 people aboard. Through sheer skill and a just little luck, Whitaker manages to crash-land the plane and save most of the people aboard, proving himself a real American hero. But Whitaker has a problem; he's an alcoholic, and not only drank and did drugs in excess in the days leading up to the incident, but during the doomed flight itself as well. Alone that issue would be worth five years in jail, but with the crash suffering some fatalities, his problems might mean life in prison for the troubled aviator.

The movie that will make people stay at home this holiday season.
With an estimated 140 million people worldwide suffering some form of alcoholism, Flight makes itself much more accessible a tale of mental sickness than last year's Shame, which focused on much-disregarded sexual addiction. But while that NC-17 title brought a host of unique imagery in to tell its story, Zemeckis doesn't do nearly as well in Flight, which often gives us cliche and stereotypical ideas and characters in lieu of anything approaching actual feeling. I do have to give the director and screenwriter John Gatins some credit; Whip is an unrepentant jerk with an ego the size of Manhattan, and the filmmakers don't go out of their way to turn him into a saint or a misunderstood savant. They go out of their way to treat the disease of alcoholism with respect and honesty. But while it might be wholly realistic for such a stricken man to constantly renounce his problem and throw all the liquor in the house away only to buy it all back later, the scene becomes less tragic and more superfluous the more you show it on screen. Zemeckis obviously feels more at home in Uncanny Valley (it's ironic he's getting out of the 3D animation game just as it's really getting good) and doesn't have the same feel for real living actors as he did in the days of the Back to the Future trilogy, Forest Gump or even Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

"No more questions about Training Day, please."
But while Washington is partially sabotaged by his creative team, he responds by putting on one of his most impressive performances in years. As I stated before, Washington is simply one of the best, and you can see him undergoing this emotional roller coaster with each new scene, as one by one Whip alienates and shrugs off the advice and help offered by his friends and compatriots, including the (somewhat shoehorned) romance with a recovering drug addict (a surprisingly strong Kelly Reilly). But while Washington excels, the script wastes a vast ensemble cast that includes Reilly, John Goodman, Tamara Tunie, Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood, Brian Geraghty, Melissa Leo and an absolutely wonderful early scene by James Badge Dale. I don't know if this was a conscious decision, but the film insists on being all about Whip and only Whip, brushing aside the potentially interesting characters and extremely talented actors to the wings.

Cue rock anthem... now.
While he does his best to overcome overwrought material, Washington still can't make a mediocre Flight the Oscar favorite that many reviewers are calling it. He is still one of the best performers in Hollywood, and one of the few black men who can producers feel comfortable headlining a major motion picture without saddling him alongside a bigger white star. You can also look forward to seeing him nominated for another Academy Award this year, as both his work here and a dearth of sufficiently high-caliber performances this year all but guarantees him a nomination alongside Lincoln's Daniel Day Lewis and The Sessions' John Hawkes. I also wasn't bored with one minute of the two-plus hour film, so if you're okay with watching Washington commanding the screen with his usual panache for 139 minutes, then you might consider taking a flier on this one. Washington's too good an actor to make a really  BAD movie, but there's still better fare out that you can enjoy more.

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