Flight, the new Denzel Washington movie from director Robert Zemeckis, cost a reported $31 million to produce. For an awards-season-kickoff drama that boasts some 300 digital effects, that's practically a mumblecore budget. And probably $28 million of Paramount's cash went to music clearances.
Zemeckis has spent the past decade shepherding motion-capture filmmaking from dead-eyed creepy (Polar Express) to merely stupid (the sadly inevitable Jim Carrey-ing of A Christmas Carol), so his return to live action is a comfort — even when it's also a rote disappointment. But the hugely successful director of Forrest Gump didn't get where he is by being subtle, and so we get a Time-Life compilation's worth of FM staples to lubricate Flight's emotions. That means two helpings of Joe Cocker's "Feelin' Alright," an application of the Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil" that would make Martin Scorsese blush, and — to show that Zemeckis hasn't lost a step since the 1990s — the Red Hot Chili Peppers. If someone is shooting heroin, it must be time for "Under the Bridge." No smack addict has been this badly treated onscreen since Gene Hackman got tied to a bed in French Connection II.
Denzel isn't the one dancing with Mr. Brownstone, though. His problem, assigned by Flight screenwriter John Gatins (Real Steel), is booze (bookended with coke when it's time to wake up). See, airline pilot Whip Whitaker is an alcoholic. And he isn't just any kind of alcoholic. He's the worst kind, the Hollywood kind.
Not to be unfair to those real-life alcoholics whose coffee-table clutterings are as bottle-dense as Whitaker's, those drinkers who aren't even in the same zip code as rock bottom when they pull from a half-gallon of McCormick before driving out of the liquor-store parking lot (as Whip does). Those people are out there, and they don't live to tell Keith Richards' tale. But even they might laugh at Flight's depiction of the disease's throes, mostly because so much effort has gone into making Whitaker's internal struggle so wince-inducing in its external specifics. Washington gets to play drunk in the classic movie modes: charismatic dissipation, slurred anger, stubborn denial, out cold. But the character must stay articulate enough to move along his melodrama, and he must also be convincingly capable of a pilot's split-second judgment. So to tell us how drunk Whitaker is, how drunk he has been, and how drunk he's going to be, Gatins and Zemeckis rely on sweaty close-ups, orgies of mini-bar empties, and Joe Cocker.
In spite of its sheer obviousness, Flight sometimes works. This owes something to one tenet of matinee dipso drama that's as effective now as it was seven decades ago in The Lost Weekend: the manipulation of our rooting interest. Something about seeing a posse of well-meaning folks with fully functional self-control tweaks our inner libertarians, and we rationalize for our drunk-ass hero, willing him to quit and to do it, as he insists he can, on his own terms. Flight goes that impulse one better by making Whitaker a real hero — and daring us not to root for him to elude the punishment he deserves (that might, in fact, save his life).
Because even impaired — spectacularly impaired, a blood test later shows — Whitaker saves a crashing jet full of passengers (and untold lives on the ground) by executing a maneuver no other pilot could have made.
Whip's trick — forcing the plane's dive into an inversion, turning the thing upside down — is CGI catnip for Zemeckis. The director delivers an air sequence whose only rival is his own previous work: the FedEx cargo plane's harrowing descent in Cast Away. It's jarring to the point of near punishment, and it proves that Zemeckis remains among our most technically astute directors. (Don Burgess, who also shot Cast Away, is director of photography here, and his work is strong throughout.)
The last time Washington played a drunk with a unique skill set was in 2004's Man on Fire, the most violent and direct of the actor's increasingly absurd collaborations with the late Tony Scott, and one that came with some weird Catholic baggage. The arc for that Bible-reading, gun-toting character was simple: Care about a child enough to stop drinking, avenge the child's abduction with elaborate cruelty, yield sacrificially to God's will.
Whitaker's journey isn't much more complex, but Flight's God problem is different. Its most grating tic is the sneer it turns against Christianity, and not just because Whitaker thinks he doesn't need the 12 steps. Whip's co-pilot isn't just a straight arrow but a prayerful man with a prayerful wife, and Brian Geraghty plays him just a few shades darker than Jack McBrayer's character on 30 Rock. And the church that the doomed plane grazes is a Pentecostal sanctuary, whose white-robed (and glowingly photographed) parishioners are in the middle of a baptism when they're called on to pull survivors from the wreckage. Jesus, really?
Zemeckis' good movies — the first Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit chief among them — do just fine without the quiet layering of subtext, though they're not without nuance. Flight is second-tier Zemeckis, an effective demonstration of star power overcoming computer wizardry but not quite surmounting a schematic story. Washington is solid, and he is given room to capital-A act by the rest of the cast (though the English Kelly Reilly and the Canadian Bruce Greenwood relish their honey-glazed Georgia accents a bit too much).
The most interesting thing going on in Flight might be the return of Zemeckis not just to live action but to kid-unfriendly movies. The director has stuck PG-13 or lower since 1980's frenetically debauched Used Cars (still a worthy companion to The Blues Brothers and Caddyshack, that year's other high watermarks for the permanent adolescence allowed by cable TV), but Flight earns its hard-R wings. There's a generously naked Nadine Velazquez as the movie starts, frank drug use then and later, and profanity copious enough that it washes over you like jet-engine white noise on a red-eye. This is not a rebuke. I pretty much wish that everything but Pixar movies were rated R, and even that studio's Cars franchise would benefit if it channeled a little Deadwood. It's my hope that Zemeckis, who proves here that a not-stupid, star-driven movie can be crafted cheaply, try again, with a script that's as ambitious as he still is.