It couldn’t have been more than 10 minutes (probably more like 7 minutes, 43 seconds) into the new Denzel Washington film Flight (directed by Robert Zemeckis) before I leaned over and whispered, “Start shining up the Oscar, ‘cause Denzel is on his game.” And I meant it. It took just that long for Denzel to have you on the hook, instantly fascinated with his character, and teed up and ready to go for what promised to be a not by the numbers movie. And as the film unfolded, Denzel as the flawed, alcoholic but ace pilot Whip Whitaker kept you on that hook, invested in everything that happened to his character. Add in the supporting cast, complete with the always pitch perfect Bruce Greenwood and Don Cheadle, an excellent Kelly Reilly (as a like soul to Denzel’s character), and the having a blast John Goodman, and all the makings were there. BTW, is there anybody in Hollywood having more fun this movie season than Goodman, chewing scenery in both Flight and Argo faster than a hasn’t eaten in months Pac-Man?
The other thing beside the perfect casting that Flight had going for it was clearly a good idea to jump off from. The movie starts off electrically in the first 20-25 minutes, as we are witness to one of the most edge of your seat plane crashes ever put on film. Whip as captain of the plane pulls off a miracle, albeit not without casualties, landing. But there is a lot more at work than a simple plane crash story. The pitch for this movie had to be something along the lines of, “We want to do a movie about a plane crash, but we want to focus on the real, flawed people that are involved in it and a part of it. People aren’t perfect, and they aren’t all bad, either. Let’s go beyond the usual and treat the audience like adults, really explore some of these characters.” Or at least that’s how I imagine the pitch went.
The problem is, the writers and Zemeckis couldn’t stick to their guns. After the first third of the movie, which sets up fascinating possibilities that could lead us anywhere, the rest of the movie is filled with lead the audience by their noses from point A to point B plot contrivances that are, at best, somewhat lazily written and, at worst, insulting to the audience. I was all ready to go for an interesting, adult themed movie that explored the complicated nature of people. But if you’re going to T up a movie that purports to do that, then go ahead and do it. Unfortunately, the only thing explored during the second half of Flight seemed to be focus group cards and re-shoots. Literally the entire movie was held together by the performances, particularly Denzel’s performance. If you read the words on a piece of paper, you wouldn’t believe any of it. It is the actors in this film that are the glue that make you believe it.
The ending of the movie, involving Denzel and those trying to protect him from himself doing all they can to get Denzel through a thorny appearance before the NTSB, has some of the most unbelievable, audience manipulating events taking place that you will ever see in a movie. This ending is a perfect microcosm for the entire film, though. Because while you find yourself almost screaming at the screen to make the story stop, you also can’t help yourself in enjoying the brilliance of the Denzel/Goodman/Cheadle/Greenwood ensemble absolutely tearing it apart before your eyes. You want to throw spitballs at the writing, while high fiving and thanking the actors for saving it all for you. In the end, if you go to the trouble of seeing Flight, you’ll probably be OK with it because you won’t soon forget the Whip Whitaker character that Denzel wholly creates. And even though you won’t be singing the praises of the movie he won it for, if and when Denzel strolls up the aisle with that grin of his to pick up Oscar, you’ll think he deserves it. Except I just remembered Daniel Day-Lewis has to win it for Lincoln.