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In case the pilot of Lost or Robert Zemeckis's Cast Away hadn't already done it for you, Zemeckis's new film Flight-- which closed the New York Film Festival last night-- will probably ruin air travel for you. The movie, which is largely a slow-paced drama about a man overcoming his personal demons, opens with a phenomenally scary plane crash scene, one promoted heavily in the film's trailers but still visceral and intense when seen in full. Our hero is Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington), and he wakes up the morning of the fateful flight in pretty bad shape, fighting a hangover with more booze and a few lines of cocaine, and napping in the cockpit when the plane mysteriously enters a free fall, with most of the equipment failing as they careen closer and closer to the ground.
Whip's miraculous rescue of the flight involves turning the plane upside down, enlisting both his co-pilot (Brian Geraghty) and loyal flight attendant (Tamara Tunie) to help pull levers, and eventually coasting the plane into an empty field, with all but six passengers surviving. It's an incredible feat, and nobody disagrees with Whip when he insists nobody could have landed the plane but him-- in fact, it's tested in a lab. But as the media zeroes in on this fantastic story, and the pilot's union is forced to step in and defend Whip from criminal charges related to the six deaths on board, it's clear that he can't keep his addiction and demons a secret, especially to the handful of people he allows himself to get close to.
The nerve-jangling plane crash that opens Flight gets the audience's attention in a way that a more traditional beginning might not have, and watching Whip's incredible calm under pressure gives us reason to root for him through his fight against addiction-- he's no ordinary man, and this is no ordinary story of a man and his demons. It helps, of course, that Whip is played by Denzel Washington as charismatic but mercurial, exuding unearned confidence and sometimes barely hiding a temper. When he starts a relationship with a recovering heroin addict (Kelly Reilly), we root for his redemption while also worrying for her safety. When he confronts his former co-pilot in the hospital, we know Whip's bullying him while also knowing his version of the story-- that no one else could have landed the plane-- is true.
John Goodman has a showy but tiny supporting role as Whip's energetic coke-dealing friend, but the real heavy lifting is done by Bruce Greenwood as Whip's pilot pal and Don Cheadle as the attack-dog lawyer hired by the pilot's union to keep Whip out of trouble. Greenwood is perfectly as the earthy, well-meaning friend, and he's the only actor to nail his Atlantan accent, while Cheadle is more easily frustrated by Whip's excuses, and explodes at him in one memorable scene. The three are so good together that less rewarding subplots-- like Whip's estranged wife and son, or even his romance with Reilly's Nicole, which hits a mysterious dead end-- should have been trimmed. It would at least help with Flight's bloated two-and-a-half-hour runtime, inexcusable for a film that's essentially a character study based around a great performance and minimal plot.
Aside from a few moments where Zemeckis pushes his point too hard, through tight close-ups on bottles of booze or Alan Silvestri's too-sincere score, Flight is a nicely restrained drama for grown-ups, sticking with Whip's realistic self-destruction and impulses toward improvement when it could go much bigger. That's all undone in the final five minutes, where John Gatins's script stumbles badly on its way toward conclusion, and the finely tuned ambiguities of Washington's performance dissolve into straightforward platitudes. Flight is a messy return to live-action filmmaking for Zemeckis, but its strongest scenes-- and especially that plane crash-- are reason enough to be glad he's back.