Movie Review: Flight
To some people, there comes a time when the filmmakers we watch, grow up.
Take Steven Spielberg. While he wowed us with films like Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T., he also wanted to explore more dramatic territory in the 1980’s. His early attempts with The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun netted him mixed reactions from many. Of course, it wasn’t until his bleak-yet-powerful release of Schindler’s List in 1993, did Spielberg truly begin to set foot into a more serious realm.
And now, that time appears to have come for director Robert Zemeckis.
The late 1990’s brought us several films where Zemeckis attempted to put us into more serious realms of storytelling, from his adaptation of Carl Sagan’s Contact, to the one-man-journey of Cast Away. While both films featured great performances from their leads and a wonderful use of ‘invisible effects,’ neither really got into the deep, R-rated territory that Spielberg had entered into.
Well, after the last decade in which he attempted to pioneer motion-capture in films (with The Polar Express, Beowulf, & A Christmas Carol), Zemeckis has returned to the land of live-action…and grown up.
Compared to the rest of Zemeckis’ filmography, much of Flight’s story and tone differs greatly from the live-action fare we saw him pull off in the 1990’s. The use of visual effects is kept to a minimum, and we’re meant to focus on the more human-element of the story.
Flight also marks Zemeckis’ first R-rated film since 1980’s raunchy comedy, Used Cars. However, the material in his latest film shows a story that is more dramatic. For those of you who have seen the first movie trailers, this is one of those films where that trailer is not going to do the film justice. If you think you’ve seen the entire movie in that little preview…you haven’t.
Pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) starts a new day, making a short flight from Florida to Georgia. However, things take a violent turn when the commercial jetliner he’s co-piloting suddenly malfunctions. In a daring maneuver, Whip manages to pull off a miraculous landing, with minimal casualties. However, while many are quick to hail him as a hero, new questions slowly begin to surface regarding Whip.
There’s early award-season buzz regarding Denzel Washington’s turn as the film’s main star, and after seeing his performance, one can see why. The role Washington takes on as Whip is one that I think many would love to have landed, and seems to be based largely on subtlety. Steely eyes protrude from under his brows, as if attempting to shut you out from seeing what is going on inside his head. His character in Flight is one that you will question, and hopefully, grow concerned for.
Washington is buoyed by a rather renowned group of actors, such as Bruce Greenwood, Don Cheadle, and Kelly Reilly. There’s also a fun little ‘cameo’ of John Goodman playing a close ‘confidante’ of Denzel’s character. While Washington’s role as Whip is front and foremost, each of the actors mentioned gets a chance to shine as well, with Kelly Reilly standing out pretty quickly. When we first encounter her, she is one of the few enigmas in the structure of the film, but as it continues onward, she soon ends up becoming someone we can’t stop watching or listening to.
One thread weaved within the underbelly of the story, is the circumstances of the crash aftermath. Talk of God does figure into the story in several areas: does God pre-determine what will happen? Is Whip’s work part of His plan? Some choose to believe this, and others don’t. The film leaves this idea left open to the audience, yet doesn’t feel quite as ‘subtle’ as the God-vs-science talk in Contact. One such instance is where Whip goes to visit his injured co-pilot, whose wife sits nearby, parroting ‘Praise Jesus’ when the conversation turns to her husband’s survival.
Except for a few minor sequences, it feels that much of the special effects effort was placed into the creation of the film’s major plane crash sequence. Here is where Zemeckis’ camerawork seems to shine outside of the normal action films we see these days. Unlike Paul Greengrass-style shake-until-you-vomit cinematography, the camera is prone to very minimal shaking during the incident. We do get some turbulent camera movement, but we can always focus and know where our actors are in a scene. Many of us talking to Zemeckis in a post-Q&A following the film seemed in agreement that his ability to put us in the experience but not rattle our brains, was really well done.
Musically, composer Alan Silvestri returns as part of Zemeckis’ gang, but much like his work in Cast Away, the music he composes is comprised of just a few minimal pieces. Instead, Zemeckis puts most of the film’s music into the hands of various artists, using familiar tunes to encapsulate various moments, a technique similar to the music use in Forrest Gump.
One could almost call this the rebirth of Robert Zemeckis, but in truth, that’s not really being fair to him. His attempts to energize the landscape of motion-capture were valiant efforts, and I still believe he deserves some respect for that. Flight should simply be seen as another step in his continuing growth as a film director. With its streamlined budget and character-focused plot, several fans of the film I attended the screening with wondered what he could accomplish after this. If Flight does well, one can imagine him putting his skills into tackling another film that is just as dramatic and ‘adult’ as this one.