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28 January 2013

A Flight of Fancy

The last Robert Zemeckis film I liked was Back to the Future, which is also one of his first films. I was intrigued by the trailer of his new film Flight, though, and was pleased that it was shown as part of the day of previews I got to attend a couple of weeks ago. That it was probably my favourite film of the day, even though it was the last one I watched, having been in the cinema for nearly 12 hours says a lot for the film and I think a lot of the credit is to due Denzel Washington's performance as pilot Whip Whitaker, who manages to land a rapidly disintegrating plane, saving 96 of the 102 passengers and crew.

The trailer gives you the impression that Whip is seen as a hero figure, who is then gradually revealed as a troubled alcoholic and drug addict. In fact, the audience learns just how troubled Whip is in the first scene where he stays up late boozing with one of his flight attendants, before taking some coke to "wake up" before their morning flight. What I find remarkable about Washington's performance here is that he is not playing a likeable character—Whip lies, he breaks the rules, he is unreliable and abusive—and yet nonetheless, for a good chunk of the film, you still find yourself rooting for him as the investigation into the crash reveals that he seems to have been drinking shortly before the flight. Eventually, though, you realise that it would be best for Whip if he is punished for his actions (I won't say whether or not he is), because he has been coasting along for so many years thinking he's the man, whereas in reality, he has failed as a husband, a father and a friend.

But just as Whip's failings as a person are revealed, so too are his incredible skill as a pilot. The flight conditions are reconstructed in a flight simulator and no other pilots are able to land the plane like Whip did, which involved flying the plane upside down temporarily. But it's beside the point that his drinking didn't cause the crash; it's all about being responsible and not abusing one's power.

Along the way, we meet several of the people in Whip's life. Nicole (Kelly Reilly) is a recovering heroin addict whom he meets in the hospital after the crash and whom he invites to live with him. She feels like she has escaped from a terrible living situation, but she doesn't realise that she may have slipped out of the frying pan and into the fire. Reilly is really good as the beautiful, fragile, well-intentioned Nicole, as is Don Cheadle as the long-suffering union lawyer, desperately working to get Whip cleared of all charges. John Goodman has a small role as Whip's dealer friend Harling, but he steals a number of scenes as though it's Carry on Lebowski. There is also his ex-wife, Deana (Garcelle Beauvais), and his teenage son Will (Justin Martin), with whom he has an almost non-existent relationship. "You're the most fascinating person I've never met," Will tells his father.

Clocking in at 2h20, Flight is an intense and often very sad portrayal of a man in crisis. The lawsuits that are being pursued against Whip give the film structure as time after time, we watch Whip try and fail to get his life back together. Also, the soundtrack is fantastic, from Under the Bridge by the Red Hot Chilis to Gimme Shelter and Ain't No Sunshine, it all seems to fit perfectly with what we are seeing on screen. It really is the Denzel show, though, and although I don't think he will win the Best Actor Oscar, I do think his was the most interesting and complex performance of all the nominees in this category.

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