‘Flight” is a so-so movie with Denzel Washington as a commercial-airline pilot who crash-lands a plane while drunk, high, hung over, and horny. It doesn’t do much that you couldn’t anticipate just by seeing the trailer — the trailer is more exciting than the movie itself. The script, by John Gatins, fails to invent a single character you couldn’t find in a televised episode of anything: starchy airline executives, one boisterous hippie drug dealer, a no-nonsense committee chairperson, a scuzzy landlord, an angelic junkie, peppy super-Christians; they’re all here, seemingly courtesy of some series that HBO probably wouldn’t pick up for a second season.
TV, it’s been said, is the new movies. For about 15 years, it’s certainly been up to more than the movies, and more reliably. The writing is often stronger, the characters deeper and more surprising. And it’s cheap to watch. But even after a quarter century, you know what’s still worth $6 to $15, plus the cost of a baby sitter and parking and popcorn, nachos, and a plastic tray of those weirdly oily pretzel nuggets? Two hours with Denzel Washington. Not two hours of him blind at the end of the world (“The Book of Eli”) or stoically training a less starry protégé (“Unstoppable,” “Safe House”), not two hours of him taking a flame-thrower to an absurd movie because he can (“Training Day”). Just a couple of hours with Washington reclining within the contours of a role until a piece of cardboard becomes a character.
All Washington really does in “Flight” is spend a decade’s worth of capital on a morally busted part. He plays a veteran airline pilot named “Whip” Whitaker. In the opening scene, Whip wakes up in a hotel bed with a flight attendant (Nadine Velazquez). It’s the morning after, and one of his first acts is to swig from a beer can. They do cocaine. Then they’re off to fly a plane.
Not much later, on a hellaciously stormy morning, Whip’s in the cockpit for a routine flight from Orlando to Atlanta. His young copilot (Brian Geraghty) looks nervous (Whip is obviously on something). He looks worried when Whip cavalierly thrusts the jet out of turbulence. Once the plane begins to malfunction and fall apart, he looks alarmed to realize that the man who’d just been passed out beside him is actually an ingenious daredevil. The exhilaration in that sequence arises, in part, from Whip’s confidence. He flew planes in the Navy. His father was a Tuskegee Airman. Geraghty’s character doesn’t know any of this, and the actor’s increasingly narrowed expression is a little seminar in panicked disbelief. The look on Washington’s face is tense, but smooth and controlled. He didn’t break the plane, but he’ll fix the landing. This is the demeanor of the Denzel you want in the cockpit of your movies.
The director of “Flight” is Robert Zemeckis, who appears to be drawn to these sorts of epic crashes. He knocked a FedEx airbus out of the sky in “Cast Away.” What he does in “Flight” is impressive (at some point, the plane careens toward the earth upside down while a flight attendant climbs to the ceiling to fetch a boy who’s come loose from his seat). But eventually the movie comes to earth, and you begin to have the sinking feeling that Zemeckis might actually be prouder of the non-aviation stuff. For reasons that would make sense only on a television show that could spend an entire season unpacking it, “Flight” interrupts these introductory moments with Whip to assault us with scenes of a cute but grimy young redhead named Nicole (Kelly Reilly) shooting up heroin and not paying her rent. Right around the time the plane crashes, so, too, does she. This is about where I contemplated throwing my notebook at the screen. For “Flight” won’t be content to tell the tale of one addict. It will dare to be a tale of two, in which Nicole will attempt to rescue Whip with love and sex and light housekeeping.
These two meet, as patients, in the stairwell of a hospital, along with a third man, a cancer patient (James Badge Dale). They share cigarettes and some thoughts about their respective situations. And there’s graceful symmetry in this moment that you can tell really excites Zemeckis. He’s an invaluable entertainment visionary who can be too happy to have his feet on the ground — Look, Ma: No effects! (He smartly fills coach-class roles with first-class actors, including Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood, Tamara Tunie, Melissa Leo, and John Goodman.) That stairwell encounter is a well-made, well-acted, totally implausible scene with tin-foil wisdom. None of it has any bearing on what follows, but it’s there to provide the illusion of depth. In fact, Reilly’s character is so beside the point of everything that I’m eager for the readings of “Flight” that interpret her as a figment of Whip’s imagination. Continued...