Flight rides on performances, visuals

After eight years of dabbling in the field of motion capture, Robert Zemeckis returns to live action with Flight.

The USC School of Cinematic Arts alumnus — also known for directing the Back to the Future trilogy and Forrest Gump — took a turn into the field of performance capture, which combines digital technology with live actors to record more subtle aspects of motion and movement, when he directed 2004’s The Polar Express.

Afflicted aviator · Denzel Washington stars as Whip Whitaker in Robert Zemeckis’ latest film, Flight. Given the actor’s recent involvement in thriller films, it’s a nice treat to welcome him back to deeper material. – | Photo courtesy of Robert Zuckerman

But after finishing two additional films in this style, both of which were met with middling critical and financial success, Zemeckis has apparently satisfied fans with a much-awaited return to live-action films in Flight.

Zemeckis chose Flight as his “comeback” project and cast Denzel Washington in the lead role. Written by John Gatins, Flight is the tale of airline pilot Whip Whitaker, who miraculously lands a mechanically defective plane, saving nearly all passengers on board. Investigators soon discover, however, that Whitaker might have been intoxicated during the flight, a crime worthy of prison time. Gatins surrounds this seemingly simple premise with a multitude of heavy themes dealing with addiction, religion and family life.

Predictably, at the very heart of Flight is Washington in his performance as Whitaker. Though a very accomplished dramatic actor with two Academy Award victories, Washington has recently starred in exclusively action thrillers, including this year’s Safe House. As a result, his involvement in a heavier film is refreshing from the start — the performance Washington gives is quite remarkable. Washington infuses Whitaker with a “two-faced” persona, in which one side is selfish and destructive and the other is compassionate and sympathetic. Cleverly, Washington never places too much extremity on either side of the ethical balance. He walks a thin tightrope that forces the audience to constantly question their subjective feelings toward Whitaker’s success.

Of course the mere conceptual characterization of Whitaker in Gatins’ script lays a partially duplicitous foundation, but it is Washington’s nuances that seize this framework and make the film soar. The talented actor exudes a charm that counteracts the destructive abyss Whitaker pushes himself into. Washington’s portrayal adds an aura of complexity to the film, in which the audience can empathize with the protagonist one moment and despise his actions the next. Whitaker’s character is conflicted and struggling throughout the entire narrative, and Washington is able to illustrate this to great effect. Undoubtedly, his name will talked about this upcoming awards season. Perhaps Washington could be in line for an astonishing third statue in a weaker Oscar year.

The performances from the rest of the cast are solid, albeit nothing extraordinarily brilliant with the exception of John Goodman. Playing Whitaker’s best friend Harling Mays, Goodman remains absolutely hilarious and steals the few scenes he’s featured in. Despite the stark tonal disparities between Mays and Whitaker, their interactions are completely enthralling.

For the majority of the run time, Zemeckis remains his revered, award-winning self. Most scenes are directed with an acute realism that reflects the harsh truth of Whitaker’s alcoholism. The early scene depicting the plane crash is particularly phenomenal. The computer generated visuals seem amazingly realistic as Zemeckis truly places the viewer in the experience of a falling aircraft. This portion of Flight matches, in just about every respect, the effective plane-crash scene in his prior film Cast Away. Though he displayed some weaknesses in animated pictures, Zemeckis shows again that he’s one of the best live-action filmmakers today.

The main and utterly damaging flaw of Flight surprisingly lies in Gatins’ script. Though some were excited by the originality and presumed simplicity of story, upon the conclusion of the film it appears Gatins took on much more than he could handle. Supposedly a portrait of the plummeting alcoholic (Whitaker), Flight spends an unnecessary amount of time on other characters who add no depth to Whitaker’s descent. The principal perpetrator of pointlessness is the drug addict, Nicole Maggen, played by Kelly Reilly. Through no fault of Reilly’s — she does a serviceable job — her character is simply not needed. Maggen distracts the audience’s focus from Whitaker and tarnishes the film’s attempt at realism. Every scene she is involved in feels forced and comes off as completely inauthentic.

The plethora of ideas and themes Gatins attempts to incorporate becomes a juggling act of superficial notions rather than a consistent critique of a very horrifying addiction. The occasionally blatant symbols and visual allegories should just hint at Whitaker’s downfall, but they branch off and attack other themes, making Flight seem somewhat convoluted. Gatins’ concept is strong, but his execution is very disappointing. Whatever emotion Washington’s performance incites is completely erased by the absurdities of Gatins’ script.

Ultimately, Washington’s excellent performance makes Flight a moderately compelling drama with some gripping individual moments. Yet taken in totality, the film lacks coherence and the expected emotional punch experienced so frequently in previous Zemeckis films.