Few Hollywood career turns have been more disappointing than Robert Zemeckis’s. The director who once gave the world Back to the Future has spent most of the last decade exploring the uncanny valley of motion-capture animation, in pursuit of a cinematic mastery even more absolute than the world-building made possible by normal special effects. His breakthroughs, alas, have all been technological rather than artistic: In the last decade, he’s given us The Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol, reimagining all three classic stories inside a computer, and producing a trio of films populated by characters at once glossy, creepy, and emotionally inert.
Flight, his first movie in a dozen years to feature flesh-and-blood performances, no doubt benefited from its director’s hard-earned special-effects savvy. The central sequence in the film is a plane crash, vertiginous and almost awe-inspiring, that could not exist without digital wizardry: It’s a virtual composition whose impact is visceral, harrowing, and real.
But Flight is also an extended rebuke to the idea that some Hollywood version of Deep Blue will someday make the reality-based work of human actors obsolete, or turn them into glorified puppets ready for directorial manipulation. That’s mostly because the movie stars Denzel Washington, a special effect unto himself, who swaggers and staggers through one of the great performances of his career. Indeed, there’s more life in one of his scenes in Flight — in one of his expressions, for that matter — than in all the motion-captured characters who glide through Zemeckis’s last three films put together.
Washington plays Whip Whitaker, a mid-career airline pilot with a broken marriage, a drug-and-alcohol problem, and enough charm and charisma to keep his friends and co-workers from acknowledging just how bad that problem really is. We first meet him in a dawn-washed hotel room, waking from a night of booze and sex to admire the stewardess he just slept with, bicker with his ex-wife on the phone, and then prepare for the morning’s flight — looming in just hours, we realize — by doing a pick-me-up snort of cocaine from the table beside his bed.
Thus fortified, he cruises into the cockpit, downs a pair of airline vodka bottles with orange juice, and horrifies his straight-arrow co-pilot by taking the plane off autopilot to battle his way through an early patch of turbulence. That hurdle overcome, he proceeds to doze off comfortably at 30,000 feet, waking only when the plane, about to begin its descent, is jolted by a mechanical failure and goes into a dive.
Across the next few minutes, it becomes clear that the hung-over and kite-high Whitaker’s extraordinary piloting skills are the only thing between his passengers and certain death. He executes a landing that’s Sully Sullenberger on steroids: an impossible descent that ends with the plane shearing off a church steeple, scattering white-robed worshipers from around their baptismal pool, and then somehow landing intact in the deep green of a Georgia field. (We watch it happen, and then we watch it again and again on the inevitable smartphone video that becomes the defining recording of the crash.) By the time Whitaker awakens in the hospital, he’s achieved a rare combination: a Sullenberger level of celebrity for the lives he’s saved, and a potential criminal investigation for the chemicals that blood testers found swirling in his system.
The rest of the movie can’t quite live up to the standard set by this sequence. The plot runs down the well-worn grooves of the addict’s drama, with Whitaker executing an extended personal and moral descent as his friends and allies try to keep his public halo untarnished and intact. He cleans out his liquor cabinet and fills it up again, woos a fellow addict and potential love interest (Kelly Reilly) and then loses her with his drunk’s cruelty, staggers into his ex-wife’s house and gets screamed at by his teenage son, makes promises to his union representative (Bruce Greenwood) and his lawyer (Don Cheadle) and then fails miserably to keep them . . . if you’ve seen an alcoholism-themed movie, then the path of Flight will be familiar, and you’ll see some of the bends and curves and drop-offs coming far ahead.
But the script, from a screenwriter named John Gatins who had his own romance with alcohol, makes the familiar vivid again, breathing the necessary life into addiction’s ugly clichés. The religious element in the story is powerful without being too obtrusive, the soundtrack is a little on-the-nose (lots of classic rock) but still effective, and the fine supporting cast is highlighted by John Goodman’s turn as Whitaker’s jovial dealer, who gives his drug habit the enabler it deserves.
The movie’s success, though, is ultimately all about Washington, and the ease with which he puts his movie star’s bag of tricks — that magnetic physicality, that wide smile and easy sex appeal, that hint of threat beneath the charm — in service of a character whose whole life is one long performance. He’s an actor playing an actor, in effect — essentially impersonating his own movie-star persona, and then gradually exposing the ugly, wounded reality beneath his character’s drug-enabled take on the Denzelesque alpha male.
Eventually, computer animation will get the human surface right. But I don’t think it will ever reach these depths.