The 50th edition of the New York Film Festival ended much as it began, with the launch of potent awards season bait, namely, the world premiere of Flight, the latest film by Robert Zemeckis. Flight is Zemeckis's first live-action feature in over a decade - his last was 2000's Cast Away - and is crowned by a riveting and nuanced performance by Denzel Washington as the troubled character at its center.
Much like NYFF opener Life of Pi, Flight features an impressive disaster scene, rendered with state-of-the-art special effects, which Zemeckis has proved throughout his career to be no stranger to. Washington is surrounded by other cast members who do very good work as well, so in the acting and technical departments at least, there is little to quibble with here. Unfortunately, where Flight fails to soar - again, much like Life of Pi - is in the areas beyond performance and special effects, where it disappointingly succumbs to the pitfalls of mainstream Hollywood convention. Zemeckis has as his basis an often well-written screenplay by John Gatins, which the director proceeds to bludgeon into emotionally manipulative mush by insistently telegraphing every mood and dramatic turn, to the point where its redemptive storyline feels as rigidly plotted as any pilot's flight path.
Denzel Washington plays Captain Whip Whitaker, a commercial airline pilot whom we first meet the morning after a night of partying, drinking and drugging with flight attendant Katerina (Nadine Velazquez). This is clearly normal behavior for Whitaker, and despite all the drink and drugs, he is still able to do his job the next day. With a pick-me-up line of coke, he and Katerina make it on time for their 9am flight to Atlanta. Whitaker is unfazed by both the rainstorm he must fly into and the massive turbulence they hit immediately after takeoff. Shrugging off the concerns of his new co-pilot Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty) over both Whip's possibly impaired appearance and the unusual tactics he uses to escape the turbulence, Whip skillfully guides the plane into a patch of clear sky.
Whip celebrates his achievements by slipping a couple of small bottles of vodka into his orange juice and promptly falling asleep at his autopilot controls. But soon he receives a rude awakening when the plane experiences mechanical failure and quickly plunges into an uncontrollable free fall. This sequence will effectively strike fear in the hearts of anyone with any sort of anxiety over flying, not to mention rendering Flight singularly unsuitable for in-flight movie viewing. Filmed with vertiginous, swooping camerawork, it is a visceral viewing experience that nothing else in the film can hope to match.
Whip, enlisting the help of Ken and his chief flight attendant Margaret (Tamara Tunie), dumps fuel from the plane, and by turning the plane upside down to arrest the descent, he miraculously crash-lands the plane in a field right next to a church during a baptism ceremony, forming a heavy-handedly symbolic image. Whip's skills manage to save all but six of the people on board, for which he is hailed as a hero. Parallels will no doubt be drawn between this scenario and the real-life Hudson River plane landing by Sully Sullenberger in 2009; however, Gatins began writing his script years before this event.
However, even as the media and general public engage in hero worship of Whip, his inner demons of despondency and guilt won't allow him to rest, not the least because Katerina is among those killed in the crash. Now he is truly alone; Whip has a contentious, troubled relationship with both his ex-wife (Garcelle Beauvais) and his estranged son. He retreats to his family farm to avoid the reporters camped out at his home, where he dumps out all the booze and weed stashed there, vowing to go sober. But this vow proves to be short-lived, after he is drawn out of hiding by a National Transportation Safety Board investigation. During this probe, a toxicology report, based on an analysis of a blood sample drawn from Whip while he was unconscious in the hospital, proves his intoxication on the flight. Whip now faces many years in prison if this goes public. Enlisted to bail Whip out of this mess are Charlie (Bruce Greenwood), Whip's old navy buddy and now his pilot's union rep, and Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle), a defense attorney assigned to the case. Whip deeply resents Hugh's presence, and the scrutiny in general, firmly believing that no one else could have skillfully landed the plane and saved as many lives as he did. The pressure and fear for his future soon enough drive him to drinking once again.
Awkwardly shoehorned into all this is a parallel storyline involving Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a young woman living in Atlanta who struggles to kick her addiction to heroin. Script contrivances have Nicole meeting Whip in the hospital after she overdoses, a transparent mechanism to provide Whip with a love interest; she moves in with Whip after she has been evicted from her home. This character functions as a way to introduce Whip to the concept of AA and 12-step therapy, as well as to contrast Whip with a character who makes the attempt to get clean, a path that Whip ultimately rejects. However, this unnecessarily pads the screen time (Flight clocks in at an overlong 138 minutes), especially since Nicole soon after disappears as a significant character.
Flight eventually settles into following the vicissitudes of Whip's addiction struggles, and Denzel Washington is quite compelling in conveying the way Whip becomes his own worst enemy, constantly frustrating everyone's efforts to help him. Also, a very interesting thematic thrust emerges in the moral question of whether Whip's heroism trumps his addiction. Alas, the film loses its nerve with a last-act redemptive turnaround that can be seen from a mile off and comes across as cheap and shamelessly manipulative. Flight, despite the interesting ethical quandary it explores, reveals itself in its final moments to be conventional Hollywood melodrama to its very core, wrapping everything up in a neat bow of mass audience-pandering sentimentality.