'Flight' solid but can't quite stick the landing

atomictown.comNovember 4, 2012 

If the movies have taught us anything, it's that more is always better.

For instance, the latest script I'm putting together, The Crash Lander--no stealing, now--is about a pilot forced to crash a series of planes in ever more daring and organically plotted ways. Like, the first crash will be your normal, everyday plane crash, but by the third one he has to land two planes: his own, and the one that crashed into him. I'm not sure about the finale just yet, but it's probably going to involve crashing through time and landing on a narrow, blink-and-you'll-miss-it Hitler.

-- Local show times, theaters, trailer.

Bit of a work in progress. But a couple recent movies like The Grey have featured early, deeply visceral crash-landings, and then gone on to be even better, so I feel pretty good about its prospects. While you're waiting for it, it's probably worth seeing Flight, where the crash is just the start of the drama.

After his passenger jet malfunctions and enters what should be a fatal dive, pilot Denzel Washington maneuvers to land it with minimal fatalities. He should be a hero. The problem is, he was heavily drunk at the time of the crash.

Pilot union rep Bruce Greenwood and lawyer Don Cheadle try to guide him through the investigation, but after a setback, Washington starts drinking again. This time, he may never stop.

There's a lot to like about Flight. Unless of course you're scheduled to fly anywhere soon, in which case there's a lot to be terrified about: your pilot could be drunk! Even if they're perfectly sober, your plane is made of thousands of different parts, all of which need to function correctly. If a tiny little tube doesn't show up to work that day, all your tiny little tubes could wind up scattered over three states. I...have to go cancel my post-Thanksgiving plans.

OK, all safe. I'm never leaving this chair again. Anyway, probably everyone who talks about Flight will talk about its early crash scene. That is because the scene is awesome. Director Robert Zemeckis paces it perfectly, not overplaying the drama, creating a harrowing, paralyzing sequence, after which the crash itself is almost a relief.

Then there's like two hours more. Way to go out on a high note, guys.

Then again, they probably just filmed that scene by sticking a model 727 in a dryer--inside tip: special effects is a pretty minor industry--so it might be more noteworthy that Zemeckis keeps things moving after the crash, too. Much of Flight's post-setpiece success has to do with Washington, who is probably interesting even while he's addressing Christmas cards, but his character's got something to do with that, too. At once a brilliant pilot and a skeezy addict looking to cover his own ass, a lot of his actions wind up somewhere south of noble. I don't know where on the map that puts him, but it is probably somewhere in Nevada.

And its mayor is undoubtedly John Goodman. As Washington's friend/drug dealer, he's hilarious and energetic, especially in a late scene involving the movie's other hero, cocaine. In fact, the entire support cast is great.

So there's good writing, a few great scenes, and great characters. Why, then, does Flight feel like something less than it should have been?

Here's where things get subjective--meaning yes, everything before this has been 100 percent objective truth, including the bit about Nevada being the most ignoble place on earth. But there's something generic about Flight, a predictability to its tale of addiction that feels less interesting and more rushed than what Washington deserves.

It doesn't derail the movie, but compared the naturalistic unfolding of events that came before it, it feels forced. And it's the ending, which is kind of a big deal. It's not nearly enough to ruin an otherwise very well-crafted movie, but for my money, it fumbles the chance of being great.

Grade: B

* Contact Ed Robertson at edwrobertson@gmail.com. His fiction is available on Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and elsewhere.

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