Monday, 28 January 2013


Paramount Pictures
Now Showing

"This is Whip Whitaker and I'll be your captain this morning. I'll also be three sheets to the wind and high on cocaine. Strap yourselves in, people, it's going to be a bumpy ride."

It should be noted that anyone planning to fly in the immediate future -- or with a fear of flying generally -- should probably not watch Robert Zemeckis' Flight, which opens with a spectacularly staged plane crash.

But that incident, and indeed the marketing for Flight, is somewhat of a Maguffin. For the film is not the story of a plane crash, its survivors nor its heroic pilot, Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington), but a character study of an addict. Whitaker is an alcoholic, well and truly on a downward spiral which is merely exacerbated by the accident.

But the crash was not his fault. He may have been legally drunk and high on cocaine when he took the controls of Flight 227 that fateful morning but the plane was always destined to crash; faulty and out of date machinery making it as case of when not if it would fall out of the sky. And as we're repeatedly told throughout the film -- when post-crash investigations begin to shift their focus from mechanics to toxicology reports -- Whitaker was the only pilot who could have landed the plane.

Any crash you can walk away from is a good one, and with just six casualties from a total of 102 souls on board, everyone -- the media, the pilots' union, his best bud and drug dealer, Harling (John Goodman, who's had a very good 2012) -- hail Whitaker as a hero. Seeking sanctuary on his deceased father's farm, Whitaker sets up house with Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a recovering heroine addict whom he met in the hospital post-crash.

But Flight is no Leaving Las Vegas, with Nicole's attempts to stay clean proving more successful than Whitaker's; his vices fuelled by the pressures of the investigation and his colleagues' desires to tell the whole truth to investigators despite his insistence not to. It soon becomes apparent that Whitaker is more concerned with saving his ass than saving his soul.

It's an against type role for Washington who for so long has the been the heroic black man of American cinema (and a more realistic kind than the Messiah complex-endowed Will Smith). The late director Tony Scott was always expert at getting Washington gritty, and he of course won a Best Actor Oscar for playing a bad cop in Training Day (2001).

In a mix of pride and weakness, Washington provides an anti-hero whom you instinctively want to root for (it's Denzel!) whilst simultaneously reviling. He also keeps the drunken theatrics to a bare minimum but his emotions are almost always close to the surface. It's easily the best performance Washington's given since winning his last Oscar (hence his nomination for this role).

It's also Zemeckis' first live-action film in over a decade having spent most of this century working in motion capture animation (The Polar Express; Beowulf; A Christmas Carol). Working from a screenplay by John Gatins (Oscar-nominated for Original Screenplay), Zemeckis may stumble occasionally (Sweet Jane plays over a drug use scene; a scene in a hotel late in the film is clumsily contrived) but with that crash sequence, and when focussing on Washington's Whitaker, he's very much in control of this vehicle.

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