Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) may not be much — not much of a husband, not much of a father, probably not much of a friend — but he’s a great pilot. When he’s forced to prove it by landing a crippled jumbo jet into a field somewhere in Georgia, it’s not long before all his bad qualities start going under the microscope, and no one, and especially not Whip, knows what of him will be left.

Robert Zemeckis‘s (Forrest Gump) return to live-action filmmaking after a decade experimenting with motion-captured animation is such an intensely personal character study it might not match up to the Zemeckis we’re familiar with, which is good. Change is good. It doesn’t always meet the mighty expectations it sets for itself as a forceful narrative, though, slowly becoming more and more meditative as it goes on, which isn’t so good.

But what an opening it is. The first thirty minutes of Flight are among the best of Zemeckis’s career, from the time we meet Whip face-down in a hotel room surrounded by drugs and alcohol to the moment he brings his wounded plane full of terrified pilots and passengers to a rest, every part of him gone except adrenaline and experience. Zemeckis is masterful in these minutes, so much so that it shouldn’t really be a surprise that none of the rest of the film can quite live up to them.

Fortunately, the same cannot be said of Washington, who savors the mess of a man who is Whip Whitaker. A drunkard, probably a philanderer, a liar, and also a hero. Its unfortunate Flight doesn’t delve more into that disparity the way it seems like it will once Whip realizes that regardless of his heroic actions, he may be held responsible for the crash due to all the alcohol and drugs in his system.

Instead, it delves more into the heart of Whip as he keeps trying to give up his addictive ways, first for himself and then for the beautiful junkie (Kelly Reilly) he meets in the hospital during his recovery.

It’s a slow descent, mostly because it only occasionally focuses on the narrative strength of the investigation which is putting so much stress on Whip, and more so on the man himself and his attempts to lie to himself and those around him one last time. On a character level, it’s a fascinating journey, and Washington is more than up for it, giving his best performance in a decade.

On the other hand, character without narrative drive can be a little slow, and no one else is really keeping up with Washington here. John Goodman does his best in his two scenes as an over-the-top drug dealer, and Don Cheadle is quietly effective as a slick lawyer, but for the most part it’s Washington’s show. He is more than up for it, but the film itself can’t always keep up, especially when it turns toward awkward religious conversation.

Like the planes at the heart of its narrative, Flight aims high but ultimately can’t escape the pull of gravity. There’s no crash waiting at the end of the journey, just a gentile glide that can’t match the thrill of takeoff.

Cast: Denzel Washington as Whip Whitaker; Kelly Reilly as Nicole Maggen; Bruce Greenwood as Charlie Anderson; Don Cheadle as Hugh Lang; Tamara Tunie as Margaret Thomason; Nadine Valzquez as Katerina Marquez; John Goodman as Harling Mays; Melissa Leo as Ellen Block.

(Paramount Pictures -- http://www.paramount.com/; Parkes + MacDonald Productions; ImageMovers; Flight -- http://www.paramount.com/flight/; Flight (Facebook) -- http://www.facebook.com/FlightMovie)
BUY ME: Amazon

Review by . Review posted Sunday, November 11th, 2012. Filed under Features, Reviews.

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