Robert Zemeckis hasn't done a live-action movie since the Tom Hanks flick, Cast Away in 2000. His film focus the rest of the decade was the quasi-animated, motion capture technique 3D features Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol.
They were visually stunning. As stories and movies, not so stunning. Flight returns Zemeckis to live action.
Denzel Washington is cast as airline pilot Whip Whitaker. He's a hardcore alcoholic and cocaine addict. While drunk and high, Whitaker's airplane malfunctions and goes into a nosedive. A skilled and imaginative pilot, Whitaker performs heroic maneuvers and brilliantly saves the day. The crash only kills six people.
The crash sets up a good news/bad news scenario. The good news is that Whitaker being drunk and stoned didn't cause the crash. The bad news? He was drunk and stoned.
While the plane crash is incredibly intense and a spectacular piece of filmmaking, Flight is more about Whitaker's battle with alcohol and drugs, and his need for redemption -- not the crash. That struggle is every bit as tense and painful as the nail-chewing disaster.
Washington is -- as always -- superb in the role. His work as Whitaker is compelling and, at times, repelling. He's easy to like and just as easy to loathe. Watching this charismatic, but very flawed human being destroy himself is painful.
Also gripping is the work of Kelly Reilly (TV's Above Suspicion) who plays a junkie befriended by Whitaker after the crash. She's a poor, desperate waif slowly regaining her dignity and doing all she can to get clean and stay sober.
The excellent work of Washington and Reilly is pumped up by equally compelling acting from Bruce Greenwood and Don Cheadle -- the union representatives trying to save the un-savable Whitaker -- and John Goodman, who plays Whitaker's drug connection.
Goodman also offers up the film's only light tough. He's flat-out funny.
It's easy to focus on the acting, but equally important to Flight is Zemeckis' storytelling and camera work. They give Flight its lift. Zemeckis' film is intense, deep and disturbing. Very obvious and equally subtle camera tricks and angles, focused and unfocused shots, a little push in as someone is talking, and other techniques give unusual movement to the film and add to the drama.
The scenes where the plane is crashing will have you gripping the arm rests, sitting on the edge of your seat and holding your breath. Of equal intensity are scenes where Whitaker battles his addiction. At times, you want to scream at the screen and plead with Washington's character to slow down, take a breath and just wait.
That's powerful storytelling.
Flight is a very difficult and emotionally wrenching movie. Unfortunately, Flight loses altitude with an all-too-Hollywood conclusion. There is a scene just before the film's climax when a bottle of vodka sits on a refrigerator. I would have ended the movie there and skipped the scenes that followed.
It would have sent Flight soaring to places few films are willing to go and given the movie a more powerful conclusion, one that leaves you to write it yourself.
Is Mr. Movie's ending better than what a legendary director did? Let me know after you catch Flight.
Mr. Movie rating: 4 1/2 stars
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Stars: Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, John Goodman, Bruce Greenwood, Don Cheadle
Rated R for intense, mature scenes, nudity, drug use, language. It is playing at the Carmike 12, the Fairchild Cinemas 12 and at Walla Walla Grand Cinemas.
5 stars to 4 1/2 stars: Must see on the big screen
4 stars to 3 1/2 stars: Good film, see it if it's your type of movie.
3 stars to 2 1/2 stars: Wait until it comes out on DVD.
2 stars to 1 star: Don't bother.
0 stars: Speaks for itself.