Movie review: "Flight" may be a better rental

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(6 out of 10 stars)

138 minutes; rated "R" for drug use, nudity, adult themes, intense action scenes

To be honest, I didn't know what to think about Denzel Washington's new movie, "Flight", when I left the theater.  It certainly wasn't blow-me-out-of-the-seat great, but it held my attention for over two hours. When I analyze a movie, I realize I am one of those individuals who can thoroughly enjoy a movie based upon a single acting performance, one spectacular scene or really good cinematography, even if the script lacks. 

In the end, that pretty much describes "Flight".

The story wraps around an incredibly self-confident and gifted commercial airline pilot,  played by Denzel Washington, who in the opening moments of the movie lands a broken plane with only minimal loss of life. We quickly ascertain that no other pilot alive could have done what he did, and how he did it, by saving the vast majority of the passengers.  The on-screen comparisons to real-life hero pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger are very transparent. Washington's character, Whip Whitaker, by all accounts, is a hero. 

However, from the opening scene we know he has a serious drinking and substance abuse problem. He wakes up by swigging the remains of a beer and snorting two lines of cocaine in order to ready himself for his fateful flight 90 minutes later.

The remainder of the movie becomes an old-fashioned drama as Washington moves, sometimes ploddingly, toward a hearing with the National Transportation Safety Board. We are left to wonder if Washington is a gifted pilot who is also a high-functioning alcoholic or if his inebriation, in fact, had something or everything to do with the crash.

A good script will run a character up a tree early and throw rocks at him for the rest of the movie, making us wonder how he is ever going to get down. This movie does a nice job running the character up the tree, but it fails to throw rocks at him for the remainder of the film. The script is much too linear and there are few twists and turns for the remainder of the movie. It rolls to its very predictable conclusion becoming nothing more than a biopic on how an alcoholic must hit bottom before he can put himself on the path to recovery.

There are, however, some great things about this movie. The flight and crash scene is powerful and I found myself white-knuckled at the end of it. Secondary character performances were very good from Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood (who is vastly underrated as a character actor), and Kelly Reilly, especially. But I was disappointed that the script did not provide them with more depth of character and use them to create plot points. John Goodman was also an important secondary character, but both the writing and his performance made him appear forced, trite and stereotypical, and nothing as good as he was in "Argo".

Don't be hoodwinked though. This script was chosen and this movie was made as a vehicle for Washington to display his considerable acting abilities for the movie-going public. In "Flight" the end result was that he landed somewhere in the middle. I would  like to see Washington pick more scripts like "Philadelphia" where he shares equal screen time with an actor of his same ilk — where one plus one equals three. With "Flight" I want to grab Washington by the shoulders and say, "We get it. You're a great actor. But please pick a script where the other actors can challenge and elevate you!"

Washington is a riddle wrapped in a mystery in an enigma with regard to his career. For every "Philadelphia" or "Training Day" performance we see from him, we get equal amount of "Unstoppable" or "The Book of Eli" in return. By any measure, he is an incredibly gifted actor who undoubtedly commands the screen in whatever vehicle he chooses. I simply think Washington has a difficult time discerning a good script from a bad one.

By the way, at age 57, it may perhaps be time for Washington to consider avoiding the requisite shirtless shots. I could not tell if he was trying to show the ugliness that years of alcohol abuse creates or if he was saying, "Look how good I look for age 57," but either way, put on a shirt please.

One of the welcome elements of this movie was the return of director Robert Zemeckis to live-action films from a self-imposed CGI movie-making period. While I certainly liked "The Polar Express" (am I the only one?), I think someone who made the "Back to the Future" movies along with "Romancing the Stone" and "Castaway" is much better served with living actors in front of his camera. 

Zemeckis, along with cinematographer Don Burgess ("Forrest Gump" and "Spiderman"), did a great job with mostly tight shots that captured the intensity and emotion demanded by the script. It is to their credit and Washington's that they were more concerned with telling the story, however limited, than maintaining Washington's on-screen sex appeal. 

With "Flight" the audience gets a wonderful, but nothing-out-of-the ordinary-for-Washington performance. There is also an amazingly intense and well-filmed crash scene that will give aviophobics nightmares for the rest of their lives. If you are like me and these kinds of elements compel you to the movie theater, go see "Flight".  If not, it's a rental.

I give it 6 out of 10 stars.

About the Author
Who was that mysterious man you saw in the theater last night? You tried to get a look at him but he quickly disappeared in a puff of smoke, his cackle trailing in the air, leaving behind his calling card: a half-eaten box of popcorn and a lukewarm soda. He is Our Movie Reviewer named Tim!