Give that man an Oscar! It’s an all too easy call when looking at a film like Flight, and it’s one that should definitely be analysed. You see, in Flight Denzel Washington stars as airline captain William “Whip” Whitaker. He’s an alcoholic he’s a borderline drug addict and he’s an airline pilot. Which is quite a bad mix when you think about it. Add to this mix one terrible event in a plane that he is flying and soon enough Whip is thrown into the public spotlight and an air crash investigation. He’ll live, he’ll learn, he’ll meet Nicole Maggen (Kelly Reilly) and eventually, maybe, learn a little something along the way.
Don’t get me wrong, Washington’s performance is good, maybe even very good, but it’s so Oscar friendly it hurts. That isn’t his fault though, it’s not his fault he was given the job of playing a remarkably talented yet personally flawed high level professional, thrown into disarray and possibly redemption by a miraculous event. It’s not his fault at all. But it’s so very ripe for a worthy performance. It was his to screw up and he doesn’t screw it up. In fact, he’s rather good in Flight – something I could have told you before the film started.
Apart from Denzel’s solid performance Flight has one absolutely stonking ace in the hole. It starts unremarkably enough but give it 20 minutes. After that 20 minutes you’ll be in the midst of some of the most tense cinema you’ve seen in really quite a long time. The terrible event that will set the story in motion is dealt with by the expert Zemeckis with absolute aplomb. If I was the type to grip my seat, I would have gripped my seat. However, with that opening suitably finished the film struggles to recover. I’m all for a bit of emotional earnestness (I think) but Flight ladles it up with such straight faced reverence that it’s not long before you get a but desensitised to it all.
What could be the films saving grace comes with a few if the supporting performances. John Goodman in particular as our wayward pilot’s drug supplier is a breath of fresh air (mostly breathed in on my part whilst laughing). But his appearances are only brief and really jar on a tonal level. This isn’t Argo, a film where the comedy stood toe to toe with the drama until it was time to get serious. Right until the end Zemeckis keeps it occasionally schizophrenic, much to the detriment and only occasional benefit of the film.
That’s the problem I guess. If you start with a truly thrilling opening sequence before getting down to some good old fashioned acting then you better make it interesting. Flight doesn’t quite make it on that front and the entertaining comic interludes keep the audience periodically interested at the expense of a sense of cohesion. Which is a shame, because the first half an hour, well, it’s pretty damn good.