Robert Zemeckis has spent the past decade exclusively directing CGI motion-capture movies, and his return to live action with Flight (for the first time since 2000’s Cast Away) is a little choppy, with a typically compelling lead performance from Denzel Washington buried in a muddled, overwrought story about addiction and redemption. Zemeckis remains a skilled director of action spectacle, and Flight has one fantastic, terrifying scene, as pilot Whip Whitaker (Washington) attempts to land a passenger jet experiencing massive technical failure. It’s a suspenseful, emotionally charged scene, and the movie that follows never lives up to it.
Whip manages to crash-land that plane in a field, saving the lives of nearly everyone on board, including himself. But the subsequent investigation still puts him in the crosshairs, since Whip is an alcoholic who was drunk (and high on cocaine) at the time of the crash. A union representative (Bruce Greenwood) and a high-powered lawyer (Don Cheadle) try to keep Whip sober and responsible as the investigation progresses, but he’s deep in denial and unable (or unwilling) to stop from getting hammered regularly. The only person who seems to care about him is the recovering junkie (Kelly Reilly) he meets in the hospital and subsequently draws into a dysfunctional romance.
Washington goes all-out as Whip, embracing the nastiness of his addiction and wallowing in the depths of his despair. But Zemeckis and screenwriter John Gatins can’t build a cohesive story around him; the investigation is ill-defined and unfolds mostly offscreen, while the romantic relationship between Whip and former addict Nicole feels forced (Reilly’s whiny, cloying performance doesn’t help). The depiction of alcoholism is clumsy and heavy-handed, with Zemeckis overdoing the dramatic moments (yes, that’s a close-up of a single tear sliding down Whip’s face) and on-the-nose music cues (this is the kind of movie that uses both the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Under the Bridge” and a cover of The Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane” during a heroin-overdose scene).
Worst of all, the ending completely undermines the moral complexity of the story, opting for a preachy redemption arc that rings completely false. Washington makes Whip sympathetic even in his darkest moments, but the movie doesn’t seem to trust his performance.