Flight provides a perfect example of one of the most challenging critical conundrums: how a film can be thoroughly entertaining and brimming with technical and artistic quality, and still be lacking somehow. Director Robert Zemeckis tells a snappy story with heart-gripping visuals tied together by a mesmerizing performance from one of the greatest actors living today. And yet, for all that quality, the movie sometimes falls short of the darkness being projected on screen. This is one of the most counter-intuitive things one can say, but this film could have stood to be a little less entertaining.
Airline pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is flying a plane from Florida to Atlanta. Minutes before descent, the plane suddenly goes into an uncontrolled dive. Miraculously, however, thanks to Whitaker's expert flying, the plane lands relatively safely, with only six of the 102 passengers dying. The pilot is a hero, but the investigation soon reveals that he was drunk on the morning of the flight. Whitaker is forced to face his demons as he prepares to face questioning from the federal investigators.
There’s a bit of a disconnect between how dark the story and how glossily it is presented. This is the story of a man at the end of his rope, faced with the harsh reality of his alcoholism while constantly being hailed a hero by the public at large. It is a story of loneliness and self-delusion, of the lies that are built in order to bridge the cognitive dissonance of such an absurd existence. But Zemeckis’ direction is oddly cold, more focused on moving the narrative forward than capturing the bleakness of this character’s life. It certainly makes for propulsive, entertaining cinema, but it costs the movie in the end.
There’s a scene early on that has Whitaker pouring out the bottles of liquor into a sink that doesn’t linger long enough to really do justice to the gravity of that choice. There’s a later scene that is immensely dark in context but is weirdly played for laughs. The direction only really comes to life in the early plane crash sequence. Here, Zemeckis gives weight to the sheer terror of the moment, his camera placing the audience right inside the chaos of the plane, subject to all the stresses that the situation might bring. It is easily one of the best sequences ever captured on film, a piece of bravura filmmaking that only a technical whiz like Zemeckis could ever deliver.
But there has to be more to it than that. The film leans hard on Denzel Washington to fill in the blanks, and while the actor does a tremendous job of fleshing out the pain of this particular character, he sometimes feels at odds with the movie at large. He commits to the ugliness of the character, but the movie is itself averse to ugliness. It wants to make you laugh, playing some of its darkest beats with the rhythm of a comedic bit.
But in the end, Flight is entirely watchable. It is a well-crafted movie with a great central performance and one of the best sequences in recent memory. A problem only emerges when you really start to think about it: how it tends to introduce self-destruction with a musical cue, or how the most dangerous of the characters is played as a joke, or how it never really examines the dangerous effects of alcohol withdrawal. Perhaps changing these things would have made for a less upbeat, less entertaining movie. But it also might have been more affecting, and closer to the truth. That said, it would be foolish to fault anyone for wanting to be entertained.