Flight marks the return of Robert Zemeckis to live action film-making and it's a welcome return as well as a positive one, however you should be aware of what you're going to see as this isn't two hours of a plane disaster film and the ensuing investigation. Instead this film concentrates on the pilot, the fact that he's completely in denial about his own situation and how his life is affected by the emotional aftermath of the crash.
As I said there's a big surprise about this film in that it isn't all about the crash and the subsequent investigation, in fact that's the minor part of the film, the part to set up the dramatic core of the events and to begin our lead character's emotional journey. Flight is really about a functioning addict, one who is operating at a high level but is addicted none the less. It follows him through this harrowing journey and looks to his own personal battles not just with the addiction but also with the acceptance of who he has become.
However Flight does begin in an altogether different fashion, one which labels this as an adult film from the opening in a scene which I admired for its inclusion. We see one of the stewardesses who is very naked, we see alcohol and drug use, and we see Denzel Washington partaking of it like there's no tomorrow, certainly not the common view of Washington and his characters. This opening scene sets the tone and clearly says that this is going to be an adult film and an adult performance from Washington, don't be expecting anything else from Robert Zemeckis despite what you might have seen from the director before.
Then the film turns to the flight itself and that's where we see the most dramatic and action packed sequences, sequences which are unbelievably tense and terrifying and are not any you want to see before you fly. In fact I'd go so far as to say they are some of the tensest and exciting scenes I've watched in a very long time.
There are many things to be praised about the flight sequences and not just the amazing effects but also the way it has been written, filmed and edited to provide an amazing amount of dramatic tension. You feel as though you are there and that the situations are unfolding before you, I was totally taken in by the events.
When I fly I can get nervous during turbulence, my hands and body tense up and I can't relax, that's exactly what the film made me feel during these sequences although thankfully I've never experienced anything that turbulent.
Those are frightening scenes and the dialogue matches the visual believability, from the panicking co-pilot to the screaming passengers, right through to the emotional punch of the line that the film delivers through Whip to the other stewardess Margaret Thomason played by the fantastic Tamara Tunie. I found that moment hit me like a brick and the sequence stopped for a moment, the tension lifted and I realised the enormity of the situation. Now I know I can be emotional in films at times but I never expected to start to lose it this early and right in the middle of an action sequence, but that's what happened. Thankfully it's a brief moment before the panic is back and the pressure piled on but it's an unforgettable and powerful moment.
The rest of the crash sequence is stunning; there are no other words for it. The effects are amazing and completely believable and there's another great moment as they fly close to the church before the crash with a calm and slow motion settling on the film as they watch the wing head through the spire.
The opening of the film from the hotel room to the end of the crash is one of the best openings for a film I've seen in a long time. It's powerful and emotional and doesn't let up on you until the very end. The amazing effects are just a part of it and while they were absolutely fantastic and totally believable it was the writing, the acting, the pace, the cinematography and the direction that made it all such a spectacular experience.
Now here's where the entire beat of the film changes and those expecting something such as a post-plane crash investigation story with flashbacks are going to be surprised. There obviously is an investigation and a few sequences replaying the crash itself but really the film changes tact and tone from here on. From the moment the pilot wakes in the hospital you can feel there's something not quite right and even though this is clearly a unique and shocking event there's still something extra which you can see in the faces of everyone around Whip.
Of course as the audience we know and it puts us firmly in the place of Whip, uncertain and scared and at this time it's hard not to sympathise with him. Very quickly the film turns its focus and the unusual second opening that has been cut in with the story of the crash steps forward in a scene that had me more than a little confused.
Actually I have to admit that the story of Nicole, played by Kelly Reilly, through the opening of Whip's story was where the confusion really began. While it was dramatic in its own right I was wondering why we were seeing it, what possible connection there could be with the rest of the film. It's when they meet soon after Whip awakes that we see the connection and it is here that I think those who are commenting not so positively about the film are perhaps finding issue with it.
The confusion I felt was at where the story was suddenly taking us. The scene didn't feel as though it fitted with what had come before and the character played by James Badge Dale added to the feeling that this was out of place. I think this scene, with those around it, are to guide the audience away from what we have been watching and into the main story but it still didn't feel as though it worked perfectly. The scene itself is also a little weighted with unsightly morality, it is obvious what the message is and it's being delivered with a brick, but it's perhaps needed for the character for as we are to see soon enough, he won't even look at the subtlest of signs so perhaps its him that needed the brick.
Once I was over this step I really enjoyed the journey that the film took me on. What impressed me most is not Denzel Washington's performance, although it has to be said he is superb in the film and perhaps delivers one of his best performances I've seen, the emotion that the man conveys on screen is excellent and is something you can't help but feel. However better even that is the way that my feelings for the character of Whip changed, the way they were stretched to breaking point and beyond, and then recovered for the closing scenes, breaking the tone with a comedy scene featuring a superb appearance from John Goodman to allow us to be taken down once more to the dramatic destination of the film.
It's interesting to feel the push away from the main character and you feel it in steps, more and more you can see he's given a chance to redeem himself or even to just take a step in the right direction, but at every chance he throws it away. He doesn't bungle it or accidentally lose it; he actually throws it right back in the faces of those who are offering it to him.
At times his faltering drop is embarrassing and uncomfortable to watch, and each time you lose more respect for him. What I felt was most amazing about this was the way the film pushed that all the way to the point where I began to dislike the character and come his last chance, to actually hate him. It seemed that the final straw for me was the hotel room scene and that moment with the miniature which is superbly timed and caught me emotionally once more.
I love the way that my emotions were pushed that far and at this lowest point is where the end of journey is delivered, right where the character has already lost my sympathies, but then there's that moment superbly played by Washington and written by John Gatins that pulls you back in. For me this was all about the emotional connections with the main character and how the film played with them, and time and time again managed to manipulate me just when it needed to.
There is also some commentary about the ending, or perhaps the post ending. I've heard a few comments about it being ineffectual because of the ongoing message however I like the ending as it feels far from the Hollywood ending you might be expecting. Happy endings, sunset walks, or even the glimmer of a sunset, well it's not about that it's about the personal redemption and acceptance, and it's all about the character of Whip. From the miniature to the closing moment it doesn't take the Hollywood way out, sure it offers some hope and possibilities but through this and the entire film it seems to have dealt more in reality than in fantasy.
Flight has some excellently written and directed scenes, in fact in my notes I wrote "exceptionally" during the description of one, a word that shouldn't be banded around too often but does feel right here. I imagine the story portrays a functioning alcoholic very well, it certainly did enough to capture my imagination and my feelings and make me believe in the character and their situation.
I really feel that the film couldn't have achieved what it did without Denzel Washington playing the emotionally complex character. From the emotional layering he has to portray to the scenes of a coping drunk and all the while managing to capture the audience's emotions and sympathies, he is a superb actor of that there's no doubt and on reflection I do think this is one of his best roles to date.
It's down to Washington, the excellent script and the direction that managed to get me so close to the leading character and allow my emotions to be used in this way. It's amazing how they achieved this, and yet while Flight is an emotionally draining drama but it is also funny, filled with great music, and looks fantastic, particularly in those opening sequences.
John Goodman is really enjoyable in the film being the core of the comedy aspect, but Bruce Greenwood is an excellent supporting actor with Don Cheadle close behind him. Kelly Reilly is great in her role as well. Really there isn't a misplaced step from any of the talent who all delivered great performances.
Flight is a fantastic film but you should go into it realising that this film is not solely about the plane crash, it's about the man who pilots the plane and his personal struggle as a functioning alcoholic, battling the tide of opinion in the wake of the accident and fighting to keep the status quo of his career and life while struggling to even accept there is anything wrong.
It's wonderfully written and performed and Denzel Washington does indeed deserve awards for his performance here. He's also backed up by a cast of strong actors and actresses and, of course, the return of Robert Zemeckis who delivers great direction.
The film is emotionally draining but provides as many highs as it does lows, the skill of the script and of Washington take you on this journey as close as I've been to what it might mean to be an alcoholic since the film Leaving Las Vegas, and probably more so. The opening of the film had me wound up in knots, on the brink of tears, and even gasping out loud, and that emotional intensity returns through the film as the life of the leading character reflects the crash we've just been through.
I'd highly recommend Flight for every aspect of the film. There are a few blips here and there but they are few and small and dwarfed by the performances, script and direction of the film.