I had zero personal use for Robert Zemeckis’ quixotic experiments in motion capture over the last decade. Beowulf was the only one of those three films I caught, and I found it pretty cold and dreary.
Zemeckis is probably the most technically skilled of the Spielberg acolytes and protégés. Joe Dante had more flair and an antic side that was truly liberating. For Zemeckis, it was probably disheartening that his most personal projects, the wondrous script he wrote with Bob Gale for Spielberg’s 1941 and his second feature, Used Cars, were commercial failures.
Back to the Future is a marvelous work of pop art, funny, graceful and beautifully observed. (If only Zemeckis had the sense and good taste to stop there.) Careers must be paid attention, and he has negotiated that path fairly well. For better or worse, Zemeckis made the films he imagined the public would respond.
The exciting news is Zemeckis’ new film Flight, his first live-action work in the twelve years since Cast Away, is a bracing and welcome return to mature ideas. It draws on his formidable technical abilities to explore states of vulnerability, longing and human frailties. Just as important, it has an intuitive grasp for behavior and action that I was beginning to think eluded him.
The script, by John Gatins, reportedly drawn from his own struggles with addiction, is a revelation. It is obvious from the opening moments, with the blurry outlines of a young woman’s naked body, that Zemeckis has returned to adult concerns.
In the movie, Denzel Washington is the haunted Whip Whitaker, a preternaturally gifted airline pilot who wakes up on a desultory, charcoal grey morning in Tampa. The beautiful and compliant young woman with him, Katerina (Nadine Valezquez), is a flight attendant and part of Whip’s crew scheduled for a morning flight to Atlanta.
This messy, lived-in fussiness is an immediate and direct way to start out. Washington’s Whip is aggrieved and perturbed, clear by the nasty edge in his voice during a cell phone conversation with his former wife concerning a tuition payment to a private school for their teenage son. Katerina is more ornamental, but she illustrates Whip’s avidity and almost naked hunger for sensation, activity, anything that blots out the dark edges of his existence.
The opening concludes on a brash and wild note, the camera makes a dolly in on Whip as he does a line of coke. The script turns on the conflict when his cool and nerve are punctured. The movie’s centerpiece is a bravura twenty-minute sequence about what happens inside the cockpit and the plane during the flight to Atlanta.
Zemeckis foreshadows the impending catastrophe with a parallel story of a young woman’s own descent. Nicole (Kelly Reilly) is another beautiful wastrel trying to score. Zemeckis sharply links the two stories visually, rhyming Nicole’s tawdry apartment building with the same eerie and forlorn desperation of the motel where Whip is introduced.
Whip is almost blithely cool in the manner he steers the plane clear of the ferocious turbulence after the take off. The real drama follows when, awakened from his drug and drink-induced stupor, the plane goes into a violent tailspin and he loses all mechanical control during its terrifying and rapid descent. Like the plane crash sequence in Cast Away, Zemeckis again proves himself a master of confined space and spatial rupture.
It’s not just an abstract lesson in fate and horror, but rather a sharp consideration of personal loss, his camera sharply moving between the cockpit to the interior of the plane, where we follow a boy and several of the crew violently thrashed about, their bodies subject to violent laws of physics.
In contemporary cinema the digital manipulation of the image has become so prevalent is has often paradoxically lessened the visual excitement. Zemeckis’ interests in digital technology is probably appropriate, given how today, most action sequences feel animated more than directed.
To his credit Zemeckis groups the technical to the personal in a fluid and inventive way. Whip’s instincts and daring, abetted by the drugs and alcohol, miraculously finds a way to land the damaged jet, with minimal human costs, the point of view marking the profound sense of breakdown and suffering.
The crash sequence in Cast Away proved so vivid and realistic, the balance of the movie suffered by comparison. This story, though far more recognizable than the one in Cast Away, is more satisfying. Whip’s bravery and extreme competence inoculate him, stripping clean the carefully constructed layers of vanity and self-deceit and his steadfast denial of his all-consuming alcoholism.
Within the context of a recovery movie, Flight is colored and shaped by a haunting and realistic self-preservation. Whip’s world, already tenuous and on the verge of breaking, fissures when the details of the toxicology report are learned and he becomes the subject of a criminal inquiry. The always dependable Don Cheadle turns up as a canny lawyer assigned to help cover up his misdeeds. The byplay between the two is certainly colorful and vivid; it is also largely secondary.
Just as Zemeckis intertwined the fates of the two addicts at the start, the movie turns on their conflicting responses of deceit and self-denial. The outer mechanism of the story, the legal proceedings occasioned by the investigation launched by the National Transportation Safety Board, is echoed by the far more elusive, unpredictable interior conflict.
Washington’s performance, compelling, jittery, always watchable, is wholly remarkable to the extend he refuses to invite any kind of real sympathy. His cold calculations are hardly worth savoring, but they are realistic and colored by raw, vivid believability.
Evidence of Zemeckis’ cultural conservatism, much discussed with Forrest Gump, is present here, and it’s a problem, especially the punitive sexual attitudes about Katerina, the flight attendant whose plight proves a particularly unfortunate one (echoing the ugly treatment of Robin Wright in the earlier film). The specter of faith, played out in the particulars of the crash site, is also too ever-present, for my taste.
The ending, whether it constitutes a failure a nerve, an egregious loss of faith or an honest form of deliverance, fits with the movie’s shifting and fluid moral plane. It is not hard and fast, but uncertain and understandable.