Among friends, I find it amusing to compare actors, actresses, and filmmakers to similar counterparts via the use of the ‘poor man’s’ comparison. For example, look at a picture of Harrison Ford next to Dennis Quaid, and there can be little doubt that Dennis Quaid is the poor man’s Harrison Ford. In terms of directing, one of the simplest and most perfect equations derived from this assessment, expressed mathematically, looks like this: Chris Columbus < Robert Zemeckis < Steven Spielberg. While Denzel Washington is always the greater sum of a poor man argument, is Zemeckis' latest movie Flight a poor man’s Spielberg film?
Washington plays Whip Whitaker, a partying, substance-abusing commercial airliner pilot. One fine day a catastrophic failure puts his plane in free fall, and despite his inebriation, he pulls off a miracle landing, by way of, say, ‘Sully’ Sullenberger. Naturally he becomes an American hero, but deeper investigation into his activities before and during the fateful flight turn up damning evidence that may put him in more trouble than he initially thought possible.
For starters, the best things about Flight are all the ways it is not a Spielberg film; I don’t remember seeing any tracking shot on a cocaine line in Jurassic Park, but I could be wrong. Zemeckis has an obvious love of ‘70s rock music that populates much of film, punctuating most of the fun moments with an arresting if jaunty change in style, and his abilities in swiftly changing the mood of the audience froth at the surface without making us feel manipulated by saccharine sentiment.
Whip struggles with substance abuse throughout the film, and inasmuch as the film is something of a legal thriller, it’s also a character study of an alcoholic. A lot of this is dealt with truthfully, if dramatically, and as Flight approaches the runway, it’s easy to forget how much turbulence you encountered along the way. A vicious turn in mood about half an hour from the end is followed by another one a few minutes later that nearly undoes the previous state thanks to an all-too-welcome reintroduction of John Goodman. Sound confusing? Then I’ve perfectly surmised the first three quarters of Flight.
Then, completely without warning, the last twenty minutes becomes a Spielberg film. Or, more appropriately, what Flight would have been like if it had been made by Steven Spielberg instead of Robert Zemeckis, complete with a rancid burst of morality. And I was really hoping Zemeckis could shake off that poor man albatross.
Alas, the ending cannot define this film. One of the side effects of the aforementioned mood swings is that Flight is painfully uneven, deftly switching tracks from white-knuckle thrills to gut-busting laughs, and if there’s one thing to take away from the film, it’s that all of these scenes are fantastically conceived, even if they feel like they belong in different movies. In keeping with the theme of other Oscar nominated films, Flight is drawn from Argo’s political angling, Silver Linings Playbook’s comedy drawn from serious psychological issues, and an acting performance worthy of Lincoln.
What do these elements add up to? Ultimately, a film that is probably worth your time that you may forget about within a few days. The world of moviemaking is rife with big-budget misfires, but in terms of sheer entertainment value within that construct, you can’t do much better than Flight.
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