Flight - Robert Zemeckis - Denzel Washington
Credit: Robert Zuckerman, AP
by Daniel Gorman Featured Film Retrospective

Flight — Robert Zemeckis

September 2, 2022

After nearly a decade of directing expensive mo-cap animated films to variable box-office returns, the 2010s found Robert Zemeckis at a crossroads. The massive critical and commercial failure of 2011’s Mars Needs Moms (which he produced) led to the shuttering of his animation studio ImageMovers Digital by parent company Disney. A long-gestating 3-D animated version of The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine almost came to pass, but was eventually smothered in development limbo. For better or worse, Zemeckis’ dalliance with high-tech animation was over (although the lessons he took from an untethered, free-floating camera would inform future projects). In a contemporaneous interview with critic Dave Kehr, Zemeckis details the genesis of 2012’s Flight and how it “came together quickly”: “I read it, and it was really good,” Zemeckis recalled. “And then literally the next day I heard that Denzel had been hovering around it for many years, so I called him. He said, ‘Let’s do it.’” Kehr goes on to explain, “‘in the end Mr. Zemeckis and his crew brought in the film for $31 million, an almost comically low figure for a movie involving major talent and digital effects. […] ‘It was great just to do an inexpensive movie,’ Mr. Zemeckis said. ‘I’m really tired of making these huge, over $100 million movies where they literally mean life and death for a studio. It’s really rough making these expensive movies.’”

Indeed, Flight represents not so much a turning point for Zemeckis, but a kind of brief pause — a temporary reprieve of sorts (not dissimilar to What Lies Beneath, a quickie thriller shot during a break while filming Cast Away). A small-scale film focused almost entirely on the human drama between two sharply drawn characters, Zemeckis seems content to tell a straightforward story while still teasing out themes of fate and redemption in the margins, a kind of awkward fumbling toward grace. It’s a film by a man of a certain age, aware that there’s less road ahead than behind. It’s a transitional work for Washington, as well, easing from his action-heavy era into an elder statesman role and coming to terms with his own aging. It’s certainly no coincidence that Zemeckis and Washington, born only two years apart, were both pushing 60 during filming.

Which is not to say that there isn’t a little of the old fashioned Zemeckis razzle-dazzle still there (not for nothing would his next film be the wildly experimental, visually dizzying The Walk). Flight begins with two separate set pieces that must rank among the best that Zemeckis and his crew have ever designed. Pilot William ‘Whip’ Whitaker awakes in a hotel room to a ringing phone — his ex-wife is on the line asking for tuition money for their son’s school. Whip is quick to anger, clearly still intoxicated from the previous night’s revelry. He drinks the leftover dredges from a bottle of beer and gets his head right with a few lines of blow while the flight attendant sharing his bed gets dressed. They’ve been called into work on short notice, and despite their hangovers it’s business as usual. A rough take-off through a heavy storm suggests that even at reduced capacity Whip is still competent, if perhaps too willing to take chances, while his co-pilot Ken (Brian Geraghty) is a priggish, by-the-book newbie. Washington’s charisma wins the day; the plane breaks through the storm clouds into clear, blue sky, and all seems well. So well that Whip steals a couple of mini-bottles of vodka and takes a nap in the cockpit.

What follows is one of the most visceral action scenes of Zemeckis’ oeuvre, the crash from Cast Away merely a rough draft of what would ultimately come to fruition here over a decade later. The crash here is filmed largely from the perspective of the passengers and crew. Only a couple of brief establishing shots, clearly designed to orient the audience and map out geography, deviate from a human perspective. Instead, we see glimpses of wings and wheels breaking apart from inside the fuselage, the camera peering through port windows as metal rends apart and the passengers are violently bounced up and down. Whip takes control from the auto-pilot and turns the plane upside down so that it can begin gliding instead of plummeting straight down. When all is said and done, only 6 people have died — 4 passengers and 2 crew members. It’s a miracle, except that in the aftermath of the crash first responders drew blood from Whip and have evidence of his intoxication. Curiously, in what at first seems like a perverse interruption of a first-rate special effects sequence, Zemeckis frequently cuts away from the crash to introduce Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a recovering drug addict in the midst of falling off the wagon. Underlining what will become a series of cosmic coincidences — i.e. fate — Zemeckis perfectly frames the out-of-control plane careening through the sky in the background as paramedics wheel Nicole out of her apartment after an overdose. The two finally meet later in the hospital, she recovering from the OD while Whip nurses a concussion and torn ligaments, and embark on a codependent relationship as each struggles with sobriety.

Much of the rest of the film is a series of increasingly complicated, tense interactions where Whip, correctly, insists that no one else could have landed the plane and saved that many people as he did, while nonetheless being hounded by various interested parties who wish to hold him responsible for his dereliction of duty. Like most alcoholics, Whip compartmentalizes his drinking and cannot fathom what it has to do with his performance. Nicole becomes the voice of reason, transforming from enabler to concerned partner who doesn’t want to watch Whip self-destruct. Bruce Greenwood, Don Cheadle, and John Goodman lend their character actor bonafides to supporting roles, each attempting in their own way to save Whip from himself. Flight is one of the great films about alcoholism, Washington almost effortlessly portraying the constant push-pull of being a drunk: one moment he’s emptying out every bottle in the house, pouring booze down the sink and flushing drugs down the toilet, convinced that this time, this time he’ll stay sober, but one scene later he’s buying a jug of vodka and chugging it behind the wheel of his car.

There’s a sneaky moral — even religious — theme coursing through the film, landing somewhere between Forrest Gump, which illustrates the cruel vicissitudes of fate, and Contact, which makes the debate between secularism and religion into a part of the text itself.  Flight suggests a kind of enlightenment born through suffering while simultaneously rejecting organized religion as a matter of course. Whip visits his copilot in the hospital after the crash and both Ken and his wife are sketched in just shy of being fundamentalists, deeply off-putting in their judgmental hectoring (further complicating matters is that as distasteful as they are, they’re also right to judge Whip). It’s difficult to pin a precise philosophical/ethical framework onto the film — Zemeckis is too cagey for that. Take, for instance, one of the greatest scenes in Zemeckis’ body of work — the evening before a hearing that will determine his future, Whip is sent to a hotel room with an emptied out fridge and a guard posted at the door. He cannot drink or score drugs before the hearing is over. Wiling away the hours in his nondescript room, a knocking noise worms it’s way into his ears. Whip investigates and finds that the door to the adjoining room has been left open. Inside is a fridge full of booze, which he proceeds to consume in a fit of madness. There’s a few ways to read what’s happening here; it could be a plot contrivance, meant solely to juice the film’s climactic courtroom moment (Whip must regain his composure long enough to testify). But it’s also very much an act of God, a bit of divine intervention that finds Whip hitting rock bottom but paving the way for what could only be called his “moment of clarity.” Zemeckis is looking for grace, and damned if he doesn’t find it. There’s not another mainstream Hollywood movie in the last decade that’s even attempting to get to this kind of emotional truth, the sort of thing that Dreyer and Rossellini managed to imbue into their own cinema. Zemeckis might have envisioned Flight as a quick diversion, a simple project to refuel his coffers without demanding too much. He somehow churned out a profound treatise on addiction and forgiveness.

Part of Robert Zemeckis: Movie Magician