Think back to the ancient days when these businesses with names like “Blockbuster Video” and “Hollywood Video” painted the landscape. I used to spend hours in those places just looking through all the movies on the shelves just waiting to be discovered. One of the defining features of these establishments was their division film into various genre departments. There was action, there was comedy, there was sci-fi, there was horror, and then there was the large section that was simply labeled “Drama.” Later I’d come to realize that “drama” wasn’t really a genre any more than “white” is a color: it signifies the absence of something (in this case genre tropes) rather than the presence of any definable feature. In truth, 90% of all world cinema can more easily be called a “drama” than anything else, but when I think of the “drama” section at Blockbuster the films that come to mind most readily are the courtroom thriller, non-comedic romances, and character studies, and biopics that Hollywood embraced so readily in the 80s and 90s. Outside of their indie-shingles, Hollywood has shied away from “drama” in recent year in favor of effects driven genre movies. One of the most prolific makers of the “drama” back in the day was Robert Zhemekis, who made successful “dramas” like Cast Away and Contact before spending a decade making weird animated genre films. Fortunately for everyone involved, Zhemekis has suddenly returned to “drama” this year with a character study called Flight.
Part of the reason that Hollywood has turned away from “drama” is that it’s increasingly hard to cut a trailer for something without a simple high concept or a bunch of “moneyshots.” You can see this problem in the trailer for Flight, which I initially hated because it seemed to give away way too much about the film. After seeing the movie I realize that this trailer isn’t really spoilerific so much as it’s misleading. The film is indeed about a man named Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) who miraculously crash lands a plane with minimal casualties only to face charges that he was intoxicated while flying the plane. However, this is not the twist discovery the trailer makes it appear to be, nor is it some kind of unlucky misunderstanding. In fact the movie opens the morning before the flight and shows a clearly hung over Whitiker wake up next to a nude woman drink some hair of the dog and snort a line of cocaine. Later we see him spike his on flight beverage with vodka. It’s immediately apparent that Whitiker is not some unlucky slob who just had a little too much to drink, he’s a long time functioning alcoholic and this dramatic incident is going to make him face his behavior in a way that he hasn’t before.
Whip Whitiker is not a likable character on paper, and that’s where Denzel Washington comes in. In the hands of a character actor like Phillip Seymore Hoffman or Steve Buscemi he’d just come off like a contemptible human wreck. In the hands of a major movie star, however, he’s hard to hate. Denzel Washington looks like the kind of guy who you want to have flying your plane and who you believe would come off as a hero after a Sullenberger-esque emergency landing and you desperately want to believe that he’s in the right in spite of ample evidence to the contrary. There’s a scene mid way through the film where he gets into a huge fight with his family that looks like something out of Jerry Springer or Cops, then mere moments later manages change gears and come off like a mild mannered and reasonable fellow to TV reporters who are waiting for him at his door-step. You quickly realize that it’s this kind of charm that has allowed the character to hide his problem as long as he has.
All in all, the depiction of alcoholism here seems completely believable, but what new does it bring to the table? Well, not a whole lot. The film shows patterns of behavior that have been seen before in a number of films. However, the execution here is really solid and that does a good deal to separate the film from the pack. Zhemekis is an old pro, and his extended incursion into motion-capture animation doesn’t seem to have drained any of his energy or skill in the crafting of live action drama. The film’s central plane crash sequence is tense and brilliantly realized, and the whole film manages to keep a really good pace the whole way through. Aside from a few painfully obvious soundtrack cues, I can’t think of any major filmmaking aspect where the film really drops the ball in any significant way. That said, this film is Hollywood to its core, and how one feels about that style will likely have a major effect on one’s enthusiasm for the end results. The storytelling here is straightforward and at times its discussions of AA, religion, and self deception can get a little blunt. The film also has an ending which isn’t overly daring and can be seen as something of a cop out (albeit not in the way that one necessarily expects).
Overall though, I can’t begrudge the film too much for its commercial aspects if only because the idea of a commercial drama feels almost novel in this day in age. Flight does a whole lot right and is worth seeing if only for Denzel Washington’s performance and a couple of standout scenes. Is it a quality film, absolutely, and yet it also isn’t necessarily a film I feel all that compelled to lavish praise upon. We’re in the middle of a busy award season and there are so many other films that aspire to do new and interesting things rather than simply being a very well made variation on a somewhat familiar story. It’s a film that I can almost guarantee anyone that they’ll enjoy, but it’s not necessarily one that I insist that anyone drop everything and rush out to see.
***1/2 out of Four