In most of his movies Robert Zemeckis displays both a penchant for unusual special effects and an instinct for an easy emotional appeal. In "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" for example, he combined live action with animation; in "Forrest Gump" he integrated archival newsreel footage with his fiction; and in "Polar Express" he employed that trendy contemporary gimmick, motion capture. All of those movies earned a great deal of money, and "Forrest Gump," God help us, achieved something like a Biblical status, providing a compendium of sentimental platitudes that comforted middlebrow audiences and inspired preachers and commencement speakers.
Although a good deal tougher and certainly more adult in its approach, for the most part his new picture, "Flight," reflects his continuing interest in emotionally charged situations, moral dilemmas, and a perhaps too glib resolution to all its problems. At the same time the film displays a commendable attention to specific detail, to the actual procedures of its subject, and features a terrific cast of actors.
Perhaps recalling the remarkable feat of Captain Chesley Sullenberger in landing an airliner in the Hudson River a couple of years ago, the movie revolves around a similar event, an attempt to control and land an airplane that has lost all its mechanical functions, including both its engines. Denzel Washington plays the pilot, Whip Whitaker, a skilled professional who accomplishes an almost impossible task, but paradoxically finds himself on the verge of criminal charges that might send him to prison for the rest of his life.
The picture opens with Whitaker awakening after a night of colossal dissipation in the company of one of the flight attendants who serves on his airplane. Despite nursing a major hangover that he treats with aspirin, coffee, cocaine, and vodka, Whip brilliantly pilots his flight from Orlando to Atlanta through a tremendous thunderstorm that bounces passengers and crew all over the craft, terrifying everyone aboard; once he conquers that challenge and reassures the passengers, he downs a triple screwdriver and promptly falls asleep.
In the middle of his nap, his copilot wakes him to report a sudden loss of altitude; although the two of them battle the recalcitrant aircraft and try every trick in the book, one mechanical failure after another cripples the plane, robbing it of power and control. Heading for certain disaster, Whip accomplishes the seemingly impossible maneuver of rolling the craft over to level off the dive, then flips it again, making a successful crash landing but also losing five lives, including his bedmate of the previous night.
In the hospital where he recovers, Whip learns that he is now a media sensation, a hero pilot who saved a hundred lives in a miraculous achievement; he also discovers that since toxicology tests revealed an extremely high level of alcohol in his blood, he may be charged with five counts of manslaughter. After that revelation, the picture settles into the legal procedures on the part of his union and its lawyer, Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle) and a lengthy study of Whip's alcoholism.
Most of "Flight" in fact deals with addiction and its causes and consequences, partly through Whip's relationship with Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a beautiful heroin addict who brings him to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and apparently manages to kick her own habit. It shows how his drinking has ruined his marriage, his relationship with his son, and threatens his career. It also includes an odd religious component, with a cancer patient in the hospital explaining an ironic theology of his disease, and his now crippled copilot affirming his belief that God intended him to be injured for a reason: neither man provides much comfort to Whip or the audience.
The only special effects Zemeckis employs involve the interior of the airplane during the frightening storm and the even more frightening landing, an absolutely convincing sequence that should shake the confidence of the most intrepid traveler. Everything else in the picture, from the government's investigation and the subsequent hearing to the resolute underplaying of the fine cast, especially Washington and Cheadle, matches that authenticity. The one actor not in any way constructed for underplaying, John Goodman delivers a bravura performance as Whip's best friend, and he's as good as everything else in "Flight."