Directed By: Robert Zemeckis
Written By: John Gatins
Produced By: Laurie MacDonald, Walter Parkes, Jack Rapke, Steve Starkey
Starring: Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle, Kelly Reilly, John Goodman, Bruce Greenwood
Edited By: Jeremiah O’Driscoll
Music By: Alan Silvestri
Distributed By: Paramount Pictures
Budget: $31 million
Runtime: 139 minutes
It’s a Zemeckis movie. It’s a Denzel movie. That about sums it up. I usually would not see hard dramas like Flight while in theaters, and I didn’t, but the screenwriter, John Gatins, is a graduate of my college and recently brought a 35mm screener that I saw. It was a great experience, and the film is very enjoyable with two main hang ups: the use of Kelly Reilly’s Nicole character and the ending. Even with these quibbles, the film itself is well written, directed, and acted. It’s the definition of an intense realistic drama that in this case is, as are all of his films, driven by the screen presence Denzel Washington brings. Flight is a well made drama that I enjoyed seeing but probably will not see again of my own free will.
As I learned in the visit, John Gatins has been working on this screenplay for over ten years, rewriting it, adding to it, subtracting from it, to the point where the screenplay was far more detailed than any script should ever be. In fact, he revealed that everything in the shooting script was both shot and cut into the final edit; there are no deleted scenes. Why did it take so long to produce? It’s just one of those Hollywood things, but he said that once Denzel put his name on it, scheduling was the only obstacle left. Both Denzel and Robert Zemeckis made the film at well under their normal price tags, allowing Paramount to produce a cheap Denzel drama directed by Zemeckis. Perfect business.
Denzel Washington makes the film. Of course. I don’t only mean because he does a superb job in the role; nothing surprises there. I mean he makes the film in that he literally drives the film. Zemeckis was very insistent on Flight being told from pilot Whip Whitacker’s point of view and he is very successful in doing so. There are two moments in the film (first and third acts, purposeful parallels) where Denzel walks into a hallway, dressed in full blues, straight towards camera. It’s impressive. His character literally pushes the camera in front of him, and it is in this way that I mean Denzel literally drives the film. I actually heard some people clap when this shot first appeared; that’s how powerful of an actor he is. This screen persona stays with us the entire two hours.
The rest of the cast is great as well. I always love Bruce Greenwood and special props go to John Goodman for being the type of actor who immediately makes you happy when he shows up, even if only for two scenes. Kelly Reilly also does a wonderful job as Whitacker’s post-crash love, but to criticize the story her character is also very underused. She shows up in the beginning of the film, before she and Whip actually meet, so already I expect something important to happen (particularly as this is the only instance of breaking Whip’s point of view). They meet and she seems to have some sort of impact on the alcoholic, drug addicted, pathological liar that is Captain Whitacker, but then they fight, she leaves, and never comes back. Never! Middle of the second act and her character leaves Whip and never returns.
This, to me, makes her character mean the following: “uh, Bob (Robert Zemeckis), we need a female lead in this film.” That’s not what happened because Gatins walked us through his different story drafts, but it was all the same disappointing to see them throw a woman at Whip expecting the impact to resonate with audiences when she does nothing more than bounce straight out of frame. All of the acting is superb, but Nicole leaves and isn’t even brought up again until the epilogue where we see some photos of her. Photos, as if to say “yeah, don’t forget about that chick you spent an hour getting to know.”
The ending is also a tricky thing. Whip does “the right thing” and tells the truth for once in his life. Now, Gatins explained the ending as a need on his part to cling to some idea of truth as a higher principle, but to me it read as nothing more than the need for Hollywood films to have happy endings. I shouldn’t be angry about it because he does do the morally right thing, but I don’t think it entirely coheres with the rest of the film. We never see any shred of dignity in Whip’s character all the way until the climatic federal hearing and then, suddenly, he changes as a character. It’s too fast and I didn’t entirely buy it. Part of this, I think, gets back to Denzel’s characterization. He makes you like Whip so much despite how screwed up a human being he is that you don’t entirely want him to go to jail. It’s rough, and I think you could have some very interesting debates, both in ethics and film theory, about why certain endings work certain ways.
The film is still a very enjoyable one. Hard drama is really the best phrase I can put to it. There’s little doubting the creative ability of all involved, so the biggest thing for me, who is not the biggest Denzel fan, is experiencing just how powerful of an actor he is. Not in the Daniel Day-Lewis method kind of way but the sheer presence of Denzel Washington causes you to glue your eyes to the screen. Flight is good. If you are a fan of Denzel, this is a must-see, but if he doesn’t immediately pull you to the theater than this might be a better choice for weekend rental in the spring.