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Zemeckis And Washington Team Up For A Smooth ‘Flight’

Asst. Arts & Review Editor

Published: Sunday, November 4, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 19:01

Denzel Washington still has some gas left in the tank.

Despite inching toward his 60s, the Academy Award-winning actor (Glory, Training Day) has continued to take on lofty rolls and singlehandedly attracts patrons to the theaters. With Robert Zemeckis’ Flight, Washington goes above and beyond his usual classy demeanor and pilots a deep, dark character study that dives into various tribulations of the human condition.

Whip Whitaker (Washington) is an aging commercial airline pilot who skillfully balances his reputable aviation skills with a dark life of addiction. After only a couple frames, Whitaker’s rampant alcoholism and drug dependency is apparent, as the aviator downs a beer and sniffs a line of cocaine to prepare himself for a morning flight.

Taking off into the head of a rainstorm, Whitaker skillfully navigates the initially bumpy flight into calm air, a feat that the pilot celebrates with a secret vodka and orange juice cocktail. The sleepless night before eventually catches up to Whitaker, and the pilot elects to give the controls to his fresh-faced copilot and take a snooze in the cockpit.

When a mechanical failure throws the plane into a furious decent, Whitaker wakes with a startle and, without hesitation, takes the controls of the doomed aircraft. After various unorthodox tactics, including flipping the aircraft upside down, Whitaker is able to improbably steer the plane into an open field and save virtually everyone on board.

Recovering in the hospital, Whitaker meets an attractive yet unsettled addict named Nicole (Kelly Reilly) and, rather than basking in his status as an American hero, begins to pursue the troubled damsel. Yet when incriminating evidence regarding the pilot’s condition during the flight begins to surface, Whitaker is tossed into a tumultuous blame game. As the media pressure and federal scrutiny mounts, Whitaker’s addictions intensify, effectively putting his career and newfound romance on the line.

Returning from a tepid delve into animation, veteran director Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, Back to the Future) keenly helms this live action drama by providing a set of cinematic visuals to deliberately reveal the extent of Whitaker’s dependencies. Flight stands as a resurrection for the director, who has fallen into the Hollywood obscurity with such recent duds as Mars Needs Moms and Beowulf. The director-eye is still crystal clear for Zemeckis, who hopefully will continue to deal with skilled actors rather than skilled computers.

Washington is the clear foundation for Flight, providing his patented firm lines of dialogue and tasteful screen presence. Yet on top of this usual product from Washington, the actor also delivers rather rare instances of emotional depth and sensitivity as the alcoholic pilot. While the performance will not rank among the Oscar winner’s best, Whitaker is a deep and emotive addition to Washington’s exceptional resume.

The film is also anchored by a series of strong secondary roles, as Zemeckis calls on various Hollywood veterans to bolster Washington’s role. John Goodman provides the majority of the film’s laughs as Whitaker’s hotheaded drug dealer, who stole a number of scenes and deserved a larger helping of screen time. Don Cheadle stands in as the slick city attorney Hugh Lang, who uses his law school logic to cover up Whitaker’s addictions and shift the blame away from the pilot’s union. Oscar winner Melissa Leo makes a cameo appearance as well, as the stern federal agent who questions Whitaker in the film’s climatic scene.

In a year that is stocked with ambitious biopics and big-budget art house features, Flight will most likely not have the punch to make a splash during award season. Nonetheless, fans of Denzel Washington will not be disappointed by the star’s gritty performance, and those who enjoy previous Zemeckis flicks will be pleasantly surprised.

Yet for those looking for something a bit more cerebral or flashy, sit tight till the year-end Oscar rush.

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