As an actor, Denzel Washington is strongest when playing coolly well-defended and morally ambiguous characters and in Robert Zemeckis’s “Flight,” which closed the New York Film Festival and opens on Friday, he gives that side of his persona full vent in the role of a severely flawed star athlete—a cocky genius of an airline pilot who is also a self-indulgent, substance-abusing jerk.
Washington is introduced waking up, hung over, after a night of dissolution, taking a contentious call from his ex-wife, and doing a quick line of coke with his current date (a stewardess) to get his head before piloting a short flight, mid thunder storm, from Tampa to Atlanta. The turbulence is hellish, the air craft malfunctions and goes into a nose dive; Washington, who has been chugging vodka and orange juice from the get-go, rolls the plane, flies it upside down (looks like fun but not to be tried at home) and, albeit e clipping a church steeple, manages to crash land in a field where an open-air mass baptism is taking place. It’s fabulous film making, equal in excitement to the plane crash in the director’s 2000 “Cast Away”.
It’s only in the aftermath of the crash that the meaning of the movie’s title—flight from reality or towards health—comes into play. The rest of “Flight” is a complicated, occasionally comic, not entirely inspirational rehab cum courtroom story with a brash classic rock score (the pilot’s dealer John Goodman barges into the proceedings with Mick Jagger crooning “Sympathy for the Devil”). Recovering from his injuries, Washington meets a comely fellow substance abuser (Kelly Reilly) when he goes for a smoke in the hospital stairwell—the portent of the encounter heighted by the wise presence of a terminal cancer patient shaman with an IV staff.
Washington is hailed as a hero but the legal situation, which involves multiple players, grows increasingly choppy once routine hospital tests reveal that the courageous pilot’s DUI level was off the charts and somewhere in the stratosphere. Hired by the pilots’ union, hotshot defense lawyer (Don Cheadle) seeks to disqualify the tests while spinning the accident as an Act of God—and even as Reilly tries to get new boyfriend Washington to attend her AA meetings, he hustles to line up character witnesses among his cabin crew—the toughest proves to be his devoutly Christian, totally disapproving co-pilot.
In the near quarter-century since “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” Zemeckis has been the most digitally adventurous of Hollywood filmmakers. Still, he misses an opportunity to reprise the movie’s astounding set piece and take “Flight” to a higher level of abstract excitement when, in the movie’s climactic hearing, he underplays the accident’s computer simulation. On the other hand, the strain of religious mysticism that has long characterized the Zemeckis oeuvre (whether in the philosophy of “Forrest Gump,” the premise of “ ” or the denouement of “Cast Away”) is fully present. In the end, it turns out that Washington’s lawyer and his co-pilot are both right. The flight of terror really was an act of God.
Image: Paramount Pictures