No soft landing for high-flyer WashingtonMovies
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Written by John Gatins
Rated MA, 138 minutes
In cinemas everywhere
Reviewer's rating: 3/5 stars
MACHO men are Denzel Washington's stock-in-trade. He's been swaggering across the screen for years, playing soldiers, gangsters, good cops and bad. But cast here as an airline pilot, he outdoes himself.
While his copilot cowers in his seat, Denzel steers his plane through a storm to safety, after which he gracefully accepts his passengers' round of applause. But his troubles are only beginning. Soon afterwards, the plane suddenly goes into a deep dive. The controls can't arrest the plunge so he flips the aircraft over and levels it by flying it upside down, righting it again just in time for a crash landing - a manoeuvre which saves 96 of the 102 people aboard. And he does it all while high on beer, vodka and cocaine.
For this, he has been rewarded with an Oscar nomination. So, too, has John Gatins, the scriptwriter. But there have been a few murmurs of derision. The Daily Beast commissioned a real airline pilot to write its review of the film. His verdict: most of the cockpit conversations are ludicrous. So, too, are the tactics used to weather the storm. As to Denzel's performance, it is a ''cartoon'' version of a pilot. Even if Denzel's ''Whip'' Whitaker had managed to pass the airline's random drug and alcohol tests, it seems that no crew would have flown with him.
But we are talking Hollywood, where Flight qualifies as a brave piece of movie-making - something that has nothing to do with its implausibilities. For years, Gatins couldn't find any takers for his screenplay because no studio would put up the necessarily high budget for a movie lacking franchise possibilities and superheroes. It seems Whip's brand of super-heroics was not the kind they were looking for. Being a drunk made him all too human for the box office to bear.
Then director Robert Zemeckis (Cast Away) came aboard, having had no luck with his plans to make yet another of the motion-capture animations which have consumed his career for the past decade. He brought the budget down to $31 million and Paramount took it on.
Predictably enough, Whip is dealing with a hangover when first introduced. He has been out binge drinking with a glamorous female flight attendant and they are both getting out of bed and preparing for the day's flight to Atlanta. This means rebooting their reflexes with a snort of cocaine before reporting for work. On board the plane, Whip downs orange juice laced with vodka and he is ready. And if his copilot is casting him worried looks, who cares? The wimp is not going to come out and say anything.
After the crash, he is left with relatively minor injuries and a big problem. While his supporters are boosting his ego with assurances that no other pilot could have succeeded in saving so many passengers, he is in danger of going to jail for manslaughter because of the toxicology report on his blood-alcohol levels. This piece of news pitches Whip into what will turn out to be a prolonged sulk. It also has him reaching frequently for another bottle. And this routine gets very boring very quickly.
Fortunately, we are offered occasional distractions. Gatins has built some neat twists into his plot and Zemeckis has secured a highly watchable supporting cast. While Don Cheadle is wasted as Whip's attorney - a role which requires him to do no more than look slightly affronted every time his client yells at him - British actress Kelly Reilly does well as his love interest, a reforming heroin addict. Melissa Leo shows up towards the end as the chief crash investigator. And John Goodman provides the film's only touch of black humour as Whip's drug dealer and best friend, a man with a medication to suit every mood and the audacity to make hospital visits.
The crash, too, is unnerving enough to encourage you to suspend disbelief - especially when we leave the cockpit for economy, where the passengers are experiencing the spin-cycle effect. But 2¼ hours spent in the company of a brooding Denzel was too much for me.