Turn this crazy bird around, I shouldn’t have got on this flight tonight

It has been twelve long years since Robert Zemeckis directed a film that had real live actors in it. He would undoubtedly take umbrage with that characterization, noting that the stop-motion animation efforts he’s toiled on during those dozen years were fully reliant on the work of actors and were as legitimate as any other sort of filmmaking he could have engaged himself with. I can’t offer informed commentary on the quality of two-thirds of that output, but the one I’ve seen was visually resplendently and intellectually bereft. He shifted from being a director who used the latest technologies to serve the story into one who took the opposite approach. The results, predictably, were lamentable.

It was especially odd because he was coming off a pair of films that featured less technical derring-do than anything he’d done in years. And both were smashing successes. While largely forgotten now, the Hitchcockian horror riff What Lies Beneath was a stealth hit in the summer of 2000, and Cast Away, which followed just a few months later, was fresh proof that Tom Hanks could do no wrong (though that truism has taken its own hits in the years since; it’s a bit of shock to realize that Hanks, a huge Oscar favorite through the nineteen-nineties, hasn’t been the recipient of an acting nomination since that film). Both those films have issues, but Zemeckis seemed to be in full command of a certain brand of mature, thoughtful cinematic storytelling–movies for adults, if you will–right before he trudged down into the uncanny valley. Things were already looking fairly dire for major studio releases that deviated from sequel-generating, teen-friendly fare back in 2000, but the landscape has gotten even bleaker since, with creative energy atrophying into a model that aspires to little more than all franchises, all the time. There’s cause for hope, then, in Zemeckis returning to the land of the living, but his new film presents evidence that the director may have misplaced his skills somewhere amidst all the computer code he’s been sorting through.

Flight focuses on a seasoned airline pilot named Whip Whitaker, played by Denzel Washington. There are hints that he’s especially skilled at his job, but he’s also a damaged, degraded individual, trysting with a comely flight attendant and sniffing up cocaine to help him compensate for the fact that he’s inebriated as he preps to guide a jet up into the Florida skies. It’s the dirty secret that all his co-workers dangerously ignore, at least until his ingenious heroics behind the stick help him bring down a malfunctioning plane with far less devastating effects than expected. Though there are six casualties aboard, Whip’s efforts save almost a hundred people, earning a level of personal praise in the media that would be a little dubious if we didn’t have a hefty book deal for Chesley Sullenberger in recent history to confirm the veracity of the film’s take on hero worship. In the course of investigating the crash, Whip’s condition is brought to light by routine blood tests, and the film moves into its real story.

Zemeckis has often come at his films from unexpected angles, and Flight fits in with that history. It’s a fairly grim character study and an appropriately ugly consideration of the perils of addiction, especially alcoholism. Zemeckis stages the plane crash in sensational fashion (as he did in Cast Away, interestingly enough), but he’s mostly interested in using that as a crowbar to break into the life of an individual who’s spiraling into the darkness, doing so somewhat willingly. In that effort, it’s hard to imagine a much better ally than Washington. He plumbs the depth of this character, but largely forgoes anything that would skew to histrionics, a regularly employed tactic in roles grounded in substance abuse. Instead, Washington keys in on more subtle signals: the practiced evasiveness, the impatience with entreaties for self-examination, the tinge of desperation in the inevitable bargaining. Some of this could be attributed to the screenplay by John Gatins, a writer who has previously specialized in sports movies (including boxing robots!). The roles and performances surrounding Washington, however, suggest otherwise.

Despite being populated with highly capable actors such as Don Cheadle, John Goodman and Bruce Greenwood, most of the other characters are painfully rote or even childishly simplistic. They’re there to plug holes in the story or to give Washington’s character someone to push against. Very few of them have any life or meaning of their own, any sense of greater humanity that would actually add weight to the story. In the the way he structures scenes, Zemeckis seems interested in some of the moral gray areas the story allows, but he addresses them only in passing, introducing dilemmas instead of grappling with them. Cheadle’s character is a perfect example: a lawyer who finds Whip repugnant but is so intent on winning that he puts his personal distaste aside, cheerfully working to get damning evidence disregarded on a technicality. On the surface, that’s interesting. In execution, it’s just another bland component of the film, a grinding gear. That’s still better than the heavy-handed religious theme that is spread through the film like gooey jam. Across his career Zemeckis has taken knocks, sometimes unfairly, for a pronounced lack of subtlety as a filmmaker, but I’ve never seen him do anything quite as artlessly as the use of this recurring motif.

I admire Zemeckis for approaching this material in a way that’s different, even a little gutsier. He doesn’t soften Whip’s problems, but he also chooses not to dress them up in Oscar clip emotional splendor that can boomerang around to almost romanticizing the addiction. Neither he nor Washington seem particularly concerned about keeping their hero sympathetic, even as they demonstrate the way others are at least somewhat culpable because of the way they accept his functionalism alcoholism. Flight is poised to take on tough questions, but can’t quite do it in a convincing, compelling way. Maybe it’s simply been too long since Zemeckis has piloted this sort of vehicle.

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