When we first meet Whip Whitacker (Denzel Washington) in Robert Zemeckis’s Flight, he is pulling himself from the wreckage of a hotel room decorated with minibar bottles, cigarettes butts and the underwear of the flight attendant lying next to him. This being a work-day, Whip perks himself up with a line of cocaine, dons his captain’s uniform, strolls down the walkway and straps himself into the cockpit of the passenger jet he is flying out of Orlando that day, bound for Atlanta. Things get a little bumpy along the way: his tail-plane snaps, sending the plane into a nosedive, but Whip, by the same law which allows drunken sailors to walk in straight line on a keeling ship, manages to crash-land the plane, losing only 6 lives in the process. He flies upside down for part of the journey, but still. This is Denzel Washington we’re talking here. Guy could find his centre of gravity in a black hole.
The landing itself is as rivet-loosening as you might expect of the director who put us through a similar nosedive in Castaway. I knew Zemeckis had out-done himself when, in a touching moment of sympathy for the air stewardess on screen, I saw an entire row of heads all leaning hard left. Having flayed our nerves, he then sets us down for — well, for what exactly? As a toxicology report came to light with blood-alcohol counts that would put down a buffalo, I readied myself for a courtroom drama, complete with hammered gavels and surprise character witnesses. But the airline kills the toxicology report easily enough, and Whip holes up in a dilapidated farmhouse with a stack of bourbon bottles: ah, an alcoholism case study and one man’s battle to tell the truth. Then the TV crews start crowding Whip’s lawn, at which point I finally put a tick next to “Gumpian Demystification of the American Hero in the Age of Cable News.”
The film is a little of all of the above, which perhaps explains the 2-hour-20-minute running time. I could have done with the christianists and crazies, with their God-talk and chatter about the webbings of fate — a favorite Zemeckis theme, although he made the same point much better with a DeLorean in Back to the Future. His early films were cackling entertainments that moved too fast for you to notice the blackness of their humor — like a hi-tech Preston Sturges. That’s what made Forrest Gump so hard to bear: half of that movie was a comic-absurdist take on American history as retold by an idiot not too far from Kurt Vonnegut’s heart. But then Zemeckis fell in love with his idiot, swept the Oscars and that was that. After a decade spent tooling around with cold marvels like The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol, Zemeckis’s return to life-action filmmaking is being hailed as The Kind of Adult Drama They Don't Make Anymore.
Flight is both more entertaining and more cunning than that, its black humor buoyed by punchy Rolling Stones tracks and an ebullient cameo from John Goodman. Next to Gump, the film has the moral force of a George Steiner essay, but what lends it that force are not the carefully calibrated moral ambiguities of the script, but the bruised, defiant soul that appears to us in the form of Denzel Washington. He’s barely off-screen. Flight is a star vehicle, rolled and inverted just like that plane, but then Washington is probably the only star of his stature capable of flipping our expectations on their back without a wink to reassure us that it’s really him. This is probably his meatiest role since Training Day and he bites down deep. From Whip’s cool amidst the chaos of that cockpit, to his darting glance when the word “toxicology” first comes up, Washington gives us all this man’s cocksurety, his selfishness, his belligerence, and flashes of panic, safe in the knowledge that he has only to walk down a corridor using that patented Washington roll — as if he ran on lubricated ball bearings — and we will be with him, every step of the way. B+