A Journey Into The Complicated Life of an Alcoholic
Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando
is a director who has basically been forgotten for the last decade. After directing two very different but equally entertaining films in 2000 (What Lies Beneath and Cast Away), he moved away from live-action entirely and as a result fell out of favor with audiences and critics alike. Happily, Zemeckis has returned to live-action for at least one movie with Flight, a terrific film starring Denzel Washington as an airline pilot struggling with alcoholism.
In the film's opening scene, we're immediately reminded of what Zemeckis can bring to a project. He shoots most of the movie either in close-up or medium shots, creating a very claustrophobic atmosphere, especially in the scenes where Washington's character, Whip Whitaker, chooses drinking over sobriety. Zemeckis uses this same tactic for the plane crash sequence, using tight shots and the point-of-view perspective to truly make us feel as though we're with the passengers on that flight. It's both discomforting and powerful, achieving that gut reaction many of us felt when watching the plane crash in Cast Away.
What's brilliant on Zemeckis' part is that we feel the same sensation (that weightless, stomach-in-your-chest feeling that anyone who has experienced turbulence on an airplane knows about) every time Whip is near a bottle of alcohol. It's not knowing what he'll do next that cripples us, making it hard to watch when Whip can't control himself. Yet Whip, despite being deeply flawed and very unlikeable at times, is a character you root for, largely due to Washington's performance and his direction under Zemeckis. We feel the suspense because we feel for Whip, a trick that not just any actor or director could pull off.
The most rewarding aspect that many of Zemeckis' projects offer is his close attention to character. We all remember Marty McFly and Doc Brown, and can easily recite the musings of Forrest Gump, courtesy of Zemeckis' knack for developing rich characters. Here, Whip is just as memorable because of his struggles, rather than the quirkiness that defined the aforementioned characters. In other words, Zemeckis and Washington both know how to bring a character to life, instead of just another guy in a movie. We shouldn't like Whip, but we do.
He's a guy who saves the lives of close to one hundred passengers on a doomed flight out of Orlando, yet he uses his new-found heroism as just another excuse to drink. He's enabled by his drug-dealing best friend, Harling Mays (John Goodman, who oddly felt a little out of place in the film), and his bad habits are ignored by both his co-pilot (Brian Geraghty) and flight attendant, Margaret (Tamara Tunie). He's estranged from his wife and son, and his friend-with-benefits, Katerina (Nadine Velazquez), an alcoholic and drug abuser, dies during the plane crash saving a young boy's life. To put it simply, Whip has nothing and is going nowhere really fast.
We find hope for Whip, unexpectedly so, in a young woman named Nicole (Kelly Reilly), who has a heroin addiction and almost dies from an overdose. Her story runs parallel to Whip's, her overdose occurring roughly the same time the plane crashes. The two of them meet in the hospital and instantly bond, though for different reasons. Whip sees a similarly damaged soul and uses her as yet another excuse to drink. Meanwhile, Nicole recognizes her problem and actively tries to build a better life for herself. Upon witnessing Whip's abuse of alcohol, she tries to help him, becoming the mirror held up to Whip's face; the image of the person he could be if he admitted to his addiction.
It's fascinating that Zemeckis and Washington don't shy away from the darkness of the story; they relish in it. There are many uncomfortable moments, scenes of heartbreak and betrayal, and somehow by the time the credits roll, there's a sense of hope and relief. This has been a major criticism of the film, it's "happy ending" somehow feels unearned to many critics. I find the ending to be peaceful rather than happy, dark enough to match with the tone the film establishes in its opening.
Flight is the perfect marriage of an actor and director working together to create a great movie and a powerful character. I, for one, am glad to see that Zemeckis has not lost his touch.