Director Robert Zemeckis's Flight has all the right stuff on paper: a new movie by Denzel Washington is usually a headline-maker; films about plane crashes with realistic special effects attract a dependable looky-loo crowd; and sex, drugs, death, guilt and retribution have been setting turnstiles in motion since Oedipus had his ankles fastened together back in the distant day.
So what went wrong? Why wasn't I pinned to my seat, chewing what's left of my fingernails and obsessively eating popcorn? Well, it's called the law of diminishing dramatic returns — when the explosive first act is so compelling that the subsequent middle and end of the story pale by comparison. All of the real action in Flight takes place in the first half-hour, after which one might as well be watching an NTSB meeting on C-Span. Yawn.
You might rightly opine that any movie driven by the charismatic appeal of Denzel Washington would be a winner — not so in this case. Playing an antihero at best, Washington's portrayal of boozing, sexing, cocaining "Whip" Whitaker is a study in why to take the Greyhound next time you travel, unless you like entrusting your life to pilots who place their own pleasure in front of passenger safety. Now that's scary.
And so is the depiction of a flight gone way wrong, ironically through no fault of the sleep-deprived, drunken pilot, but due to some kind of hydraulic system failure. Between Zemeckis, cinematographer Don Burgess and editor Jeremiah O'Driscoll, there is plenty of praise to be shared for piecing together a super-realistic, nightmarish vision of an impending plane crash. Keep the comfort bags handy, folks.
The fact that Whitaker is able to avert total catastrophe and lose only six lives after belly-landing the plane in a cow pasture is indeed a triumph of instinct and experience over procedural correctness. In that sense, we can forgive Whip for drinking two vodkas while onboard the fateful flight — maybe the besotted alcoholic needed the drinks to function at a quasi-normal level. He is, in that case, a hero of a sort, even if his personal and professional life have come to a screeching, smoking, burning halt.
Appended to the story in clumsy fashion is a romance with a fellow addict (nicely played by Kelly Reilly), whose demon-battling goes far better than that of our protagonist. The rest is dross — his sneaky lawyer (Don Cheadle) scheming to keep the toxicology report from being entered into evidence; John Goodman as a rakish dope-dealer/compadre of Whip; and the implausible courtroom conversion of our putative hero that feels tacked on rather than organic.
The moral? Pyrotechnics alone are inadequate dramatic fare. Sympathetic characters who undergo believable change in the course of the action are essential. Conclusion: Denzel Washington's Flight should have been cancelled before it took off.