[Screen It]


(2012) (Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly) (R)

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Drama: After managing to land a passenger jet under near impossible conditions, a pilot must contend with an investigation into his private life and behavior.
Whip Whitaker (DENZEL WASHINGTON) is a professional airline pilot who's in a relationship with flight attendant Katerina Marquez (NADINE VELAZQUEZ). Before their first flight of the day, they drink and do drugs. Yet, they take off for a short flight with one hundred and two people on their plane, Ken Evans (BRIAN GERAGHTY) in the co-pilot's seat and Margaret Thomason (TAMARA TUNIE) as another flight attendant.

Following a harrowing lift-off through a storm, Whip sneaks some booze into his orange juice and then naps, with Ken at the controls. But a mechanical failure quickly sends the plane into a deep dive, with Whip doing everything he can to keep the flight aloft, including flying the airliner upside down.

After a crash-landing, Whip wakes up in the hospital, greeted by his old friend, fellow pilot and now pilots' union representative Charlie Anderson (BRUCE GREENWOOD). He learns that all but six people survived the landing, and thus informs his drug dealer, Harling Mays (JOHN GOODMAN), that he's giving up such behavior. That's a sentiment shared by a woman, Nicole (KELLY REILLY), who he meets in the stairwell for a smoke and has been hospitalized due to a heroin overdose.

She eventually joins Whip at his late father's farm house where he hopes to avoid the press and other public attention now focused his way. To make matters worse for him, toxicology reports indicate alcohol and drugs in his system at the time of the crash, something that could result in him being criminally negligent for those who lost their lives in the crash-landing. As a result, the union has brought in trial lawyer Hugh Lang (DON CHEADLE) to perform his legal magic in making that go away.

He needs Whip's cooperation, however, to make that work, something that seems iffy at best especially now that the pilot is partaking once again. As a big NTSB hearing approaches, it's uncertain if Whip will be able to control himself enough to avoid a possible prison sentence for his past behavior.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
There's a reason the last pitch at the bottom of the ninth inning with the score tied is more exciting than the first pitch in the top of the first. That also holds true for why the grand finale of a fireworks display usually has a few more bursts in the air than when the first shell is launched. It also explains why most movies have their big conclusion, usually in the form of some sort of battle, be that physical, in a courtroom or what have you, near the conclusion of their storyline.

And that's because if the most exciting moment occurs up front or midway through, the end of whatever the event might be consequently feels a bit like a letdown. Imagine if the attack on the Death Star in "Star Wars" happened in the opening frames, Chief Brody shot the scuba tank in the shark's mouth in the middle of "Jaws," or Marty McFly headed home via the clock tower lightning strike a third of the way through that film.

Director Robert Zemeckis obviously knew that when he made the original "Back to the Future," and you'd think that would have crossed his mind while helming "Flight." In his first live-action film since "Cast Away," the accomplished director (who also made the likes of "Forrest Gump ," "Romancing the Stone" and "Contact" to name a few), launches his fireworks barrage in the first act.

For anyone who's seen the commercials, the obvious money shot is that big airliner flying upside down over a community, and the sequence in which that occurs is nothing short of astounding and gripping to behold. Right after waking up with a quite shapely and even more nekkid flight attendant (Nadine Velazquez), our "trusty" pilot (the always reliable Denzel Washington) finishes off a half-empty beer, follows that with a toke from a joint, and chases that down with a line of cocaine. He then dons his captain's outfit and heads off to the airport, eliciting an "Oh crikey" (or more colorful) response from most viewers hoping that the same is far more rare than common in real life.

He then joins his co-pilot (Brian Geraghty), manages to punch their way through a turbulent and stormy lift-off (a precursor to what's going to follow), pours some mini bottles of booze into his orange juice, and must then contend with losing all control of his plane. Facing a steep dive from which he cannot pull out, he does the only thing he thinks will work and that's flip the plane over to stabilize the altitude before setting her down as best as possible.

It's a white-knuckle, edge of your seat number of minutes that will have even the most lackadaisical flyers logging that in their psyche for the next time they fly. Sadly, though, the film is a letdown after that as it never matches the emotional and visceral excitement while following the aftermath of the incident as the pilot comes under investigation for possibly flying while under the influence, no matter that he proved mightily heroic in saving the vast majority of souls under his care.

Yes, I understand that the film is designed as a character study of a deeply troubled man who becomes an unintended and unwelcome (for him) hero. And that he can't help but allow his alcoholism get the better of him despite the efforts of a pilots' union rep (Bruce Greenwood) and lawyer (Don Cheadle) to clear his name and a fellow addict (Kelly Reilly) to help him after serving as his kindred spirit of sorts. The problem, however, and above and beyond having to follow the aforementioned spectacle, is that we already know the truth. We see him ingest the substances, take off and then manage to get that bird down as best as possible.

Thus, the only drama is whether his mental and addictive state is going to cause his self-destruction. And, frankly, that simply isn't enough to hold our interest. Don't get me wrong -- Washington is as good as ever and could easily earn various award kudos for his work that's as strong as what any other actor has done so far this year. But a performance can only carry a film so far if the drama isn't that interesting or engaging.

Frankly, I'm surprised that Zemeckis and screenwriter John Gatins ("Real Steel," "Coach Carter") showed us everything up front. Had they been more secretive -- starting with the flight and then the beginning of the incident, only to jump to a point after the fact -- and then introduced the mystery of what really occurred as well as the pilot's state at the time, the results would have been far more intriguing.

And the filmmakers wouldn't even have had to gone so far as to copy the old "Rashomon" plot of telling the tale from the viewpoints of the various characters (the pilot, the co-pilot, the lover flight attendant, another coworker, passengers, etc.) onboard the flight, rewind style, although that certainly would have worked.

No, they could have just as easily presented the tale like a standard detective story where the lawyer, the NTSB official and even the protagonist try to figure out (or, for the pilot, remember) what occurred. All of which could have allowed for the conclusion of the in-flight incident and crash-landing to occur in the third rather than first act, and thus maintain and even build the level of suspense and then conclude everything with a bang.

Another odd decision on the filmmaker's part is the inclusion of John Goodman's drug dealer character. While he's obviously pivotal to the plot, the directorial approach to his scenes where everything turns jokey and the soundtrack suddenly becomes active like a Marty Scorsese picture really throws off the tonal quality of the overall pic.

I understand it's designed as comic relief for the otherwise serious emotions, but those scenes feel as if they've been lifted from a quite disparate movie (although something similar actually worked in "Argo" where, oddly enough, Goodman also appeared in the lighter moments).

The result is a pic that starts off with quite a bang but then becomes fairly dramatically inert despite a solid lead performance from the always terrific and easy to watch Washington. All of which is too bad, as the initially high flying pic ends up crashing to the ground like the airliner within it. "Flight" rates as a 5.5 out of 10.

Reviewed October 24, 2012 / Posted November 2, 2012

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