If Robert Zemeckis' Flight sticks in the consciousness of the movie-going public - and indeed, if it's in play come Oscar night - it'll be entirely because of the movie's unforgettable first act.
We're not just referring here to the upside-down crash landing you've seen in the trailers, though that is white-knuckle stuff that eclipses the plane-crashes in movies like Fearless and Zemeckis' own Cast Away.
Beyond that, it's Washington's propulsive first-act portrayal of Whip Whitaker, a substance-abusing pilot, that breathes life into that first act.
From the moment we see him in bed with an equally-stoned flight attendant girlfriend, getting a wakeup call, and forcing himself alert with a swig of beer and a line of coke, we can see he's on a collision course.
Written before the Sully Sullenberg "miracle landing" on the Hudson (but obviously greenlit because of it), Flight is the story of a pilot who - compromised faculties aside - saves the lives of more than 100 people when his plane breaks down mechanically.
But it's a hard first act to follow, once the story literally falls back to Earth. Alone with his injuries and his bottles, hiding from the media hordes, and facing a damning release of blood toxicology reports, Washington's character begins drinking Hollywood/Leaving Las Vegas style (as in, enough to kill you and me), in scene after scene. Mid-stupor, he tries to piece together the remnants of his life, his shattered marriage, a son who disowns, him, etc.
The trailers do nothing to convey just how somber the last two-thirds of the movie are. But Zemeckis has pulled this narrative slowdown before, in the aforementioned Cast Away (in which Tom Hanks' prolonged homecoming ultimately detracted from the terrific story of a man on an island).
There are some themes kicked around, like the nature of heroism (there's an element of Lance Armstrong to the story of a man who could be idolized one minute and demonized the next).
But the script really fixates on fate or God's plan, depending. Whit's redemption is so dictated by coincidences and happenstance. Examples: his accidental meetup with a recovering drug addict (Kelly Reilly), who becomes the only non-enabler in his world, and an unexplained unlocked hotel door that's key to the final act. Though he finally grabs hold of the wheel of his own life, Whit sometimes seems like a rat in the cosmic maze of God's plan.
The aforementioned enablers, in fact, provide the only liveliness in Flight, post-crash. Don Cheadle brings it as a disgusted pilots' union lawyer who must hold his nose and contrive to get Whip a get-out-of-jail-free card.
And John Goodman actually wakes the movie up in his few manic scenes as Whip's dealer, a pony-tailed guy who knows just how much blow you need to balance that buzz. Thanks for the laughs, John. We needed that.
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