Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

13 November 2012

Flying High

Robert Zemeckis's new film is an unapologetic star vehicle for the great Denzel Washington. Zemeckis excels at star vehicles, as we all know, and Flight is no exception.

Flight is a film about a drunk, but it isn't a film about alcoholism for its first half. In fact, the movie is split between a truly exciting action/disaster movie in its first act and a second and third act that are about a man coming to terms with his addiction to alcohol.

The movie's first act is its best part, and Zemeckis deftly handles these tense moments, building suspense beautifully as the plane crash – which we all know is going to happen – is avoided and then avoided again as the protagonist gets control of the aircraft. This entire first section of the film is exciting and nerve-wracking. I was on the edge of my seat.

The film's second section slows down considerably, but maintains the suspense of not quite knowing what will happen. Washington plays his character as someone who might do anything at any point. I wanted this character to succeed badly, and I even made excuses at various points for his drinking. The movie, too, takes pleasure in drug use and heavy drinking, including a boozing, cocaine-loving John Goodman for three scenes filled with humor and vicarious substance-enjoying pleasure. (Flight's humor is odd. In addition to Goodman's character, there is also a very strange and sickeningly funny sequence in a hospital room where two young crazy people keep talking about Jesus and his plan for everyone's life. It is played for laughs and I laughed, but I also felt a little gross.)

For all of the pleasure it takes in drinking and cocaine-use, however, sobriety (and sentimentality) win out after all in Zemeckis's movie. Flight's protagonist and its audience are supposed to learn that we ought to have some principles, even if we don't care about our own lives. And we are also supposed to believe that there is a god and that it does indeed have a plan for our lives, even if the first sequence that states this explicitly is directed in a spirit of ridicule.

Flight, in the end, truly is about acts of god, and this is a movie in which everyone is given a second and third chance to straighten up and, you will pardon the expression, fly right.

Oscar postscript: It looks to me like Denzel Washington is pretty much a lock for a Best Actor nomination. He is a huge star and the performance is absolutely superb. It is difficult to be a huge star and give a great performance, of course: our stars carry lots of baggage with them. But, like I said, this is a star vehicle, and the film seems veritably designed to get Washington a well-deserved sixth Oscar nomination. As for John Goodman or Don Cheadle's Oscar chances, don't listen to the hype. I don't see either role as quite big enough to merit notice at year's end. This film only has eyes for Mr. Washington himself. Bruce Greenwood, I should note, once again does excellent work on a film's sidelines. His role is neither flashy nor conspicuous, but as usual, Mr. Greenwood delivers. He is a dependable and reassuring presence in a film, and I am always happy to see him onscreen.