Almost out of nowhere came the trailer for Flight. Flight was a film we hadn’t heard of but a director we had in Robert Zemeckis, about a character we hadn’t met played by an actor we nearly all feel as if we know in Denzel Washington and the story? The swift subversion of expectations shown in the opening seconds as the drunk dappers up and puts on a pilots uniform is a shock dampened only in comparison to the one delivered by the crash and that fact that he all but prevents it. That this is simply the beginning of the story, that we then see him worshipped as a hero despite feeling like a wretch is another neat twist to a tale that was doing all it could not to get tangled up even here, in trailer form.
This density is what made the tease such successful drama, what enabled it to alone begin an Oscar buzz that is still audible now, but surely spoiling these switches also sapped the final film of any real suspense, any surprises of its own. Surely seeing Flight knowing so much about it would leave the film flat and overfamiliar. Surprisingly though that isn’t the case, for though it is flawed Flight is still a very surprising film no matter how much you may know; its ride one you really can’t prepare for, the reaction raw regardless of of whether or not it is expected.
Though the ads may well have ruined the movie’s major surprises, the story still shocks by delivering a second strand entirely unseen in those trailers that of Kelly Reilly’s Nicole; another addict, though of the narcotic variety. Reilly’s scenes stand alone from Washington’s during the film’s first hour, the film inter-cutting between him and her as he goes through the motions of the more expected story. At first this feels a little odd, it’s hard to understand why we are seeing her and the seedy underworld in which she resides when we paid for high-altitude action but once the crash has occurred and the extravagant excitement goes with it the answer becomes clear; though it may be marketed that way this really isn’t a movie about epic calamities and Airline investigation, it’s a character piece. To be clear the crash here has only slightly more to do with the story then the one in Zemeckis’ last live-action feature Castaway.
Despite that direct comparison this really is something of a surprising approach for Zemeckis to take the tale in given that he is a man now known for his alien-eyed animations and sweeping saccharine melodramas. Flight, in comparison, is a gritty, intimate affair with heavy themes and social relevance unlike anything he ever gave Tom Hanks. The already infamous crash is itself actually filmed almost entirely from inside the cockpit, the camera locked on Washington’s face and that of his frightened co-pilot and cabin crew. There are some external sequences containing CGI smoke and explosions but it is the small snaps inside the plane that are most potent; Denzel ordering an attendant in the cock pit to say out loud how much she loves her son, so that it will be recorded on the black box, more likely to throw you back in your seat then seeing him invert the plane.
Similarly the single most striking and extravagant shot in the film doesn’t even feature a plane; it’s a long, stylised slo-mo stare at a sweaty Vodka bottle on a hotel counter top. Thanks to Zemeckis’ class with the camera and his locking in the coolest and perhaps costliest soundtrack of the year (The Stones get several tracks spun, Traffic’s Feelin’ Alright is used as an underlying theme and many other sixties/seventies classics come blaring out at pointedly appropriate times) there is style enough to support the crushingly small nature of the story, making it feel majestic, and the cast he has assembled contains an overload of high-calibre character actors (Goodman, Cheadle, Leo and Greenwood could and should be mentioned alongside Washington at every turn) but John Gatins script unfortunately doesn’t have the class to match and so the movie never quite ties together.
Accepting that the sublime crash (knocking as it does the steeple of a church, a literal loss of religion) and subsequent investigation is really only there as a pretty cover for the character’s more common internal dramas won’t be easy for some but I was willing to go along with the film given my faith in those at the helm (hopefully they were sober); I don’t know though that they had that same faith in themselves or at least the ability to execute it properly. When the two narrative threads tightly intertwine, such as in the final interrogation scene, the film soars but unfortunately these occasions are exceptions to an otherwise muddy and muddled movie that would often get lost in sub-plots at the expense of its core conflicts. The aforementioned Nicole, for example, and the pulpit-heavy preaching of the religious message were both, for me, entirely unnecessary elements and the film would have not only have worked, but worked better, without them.
Given how well the majority of this story is told in the two and a half minute trailer and how little depth is added after the final film’s two and a half hour run time is simply far too long. The film ends with a strange little scene that to me seemed like it was originally intended as a Forest Gump-esque narrative device, a way in which the film could flash back to the beginning, though this structure was obviously dropped. I wonder though if it wouldn’t have better suited the story and if it wouldn’t have allowed for some easy culling by cutting the film back to the perspective of the one lead character, his journey and its reflection in the wreckage of the plane crash. Without changing anything else that might have made this a masterpiece movie, a Top Ten contender, but I guess Zemeckis couldn’t cope going small in that way as well and so, in an unpleasant surprise, the film falls far short of its intended landing; busted, broken but far from as bad as it could have been.