Robert Zemeckis is a blockbuster director at heart. Action has never been an issue for the man behind Back to the Future. When he puts aside the high concept adventures for emotional human stories — think Forrest Gump or Cast Away — he still goes big. His latest Flight continues the trend revolving the story of one man's fight with alcoholism around a terrifying plane crash. Zemeckis expertly crafts his roaring centerpiece and while he finds an agile performer in Denzel Washington the hour-and-a-half of Flight after the shocking moment can't sustain the power. The "big" works. The intimate drowns.
Washington stars as Whip Whitaker a reckless airline pilot who balances his days flying jumbo jets with picking up women snorting lines of cocaine and drinking himself to sleep. Although drunk for the flight that will change his life forever that's not the reason the plane goes down — in fact it may be the reason he thinks up his savvy landing solution in the first place. Writer John Gatins follows Whitaker into the aftermath madness: an investigation of what really happened during the flight Whitaker's battle to cap his addictions and budding relationships that if nurtured could save his life.
Zemeckis tops his own plane crash in Cast Away with the heart-pounding tailspin sequence (if you've ever been scared of flying before Flight will push into phobia territory). In the few scenes after the literal destruction Washington is able to convey an equal amount of power in the moments of mental destruction. Whitaker is obviously crushed by the events the bottle silently calling for him in every down moment. Flight strives for that level of introspection throughout eventually pairing Washington with equally distraught junkie Nicole (Kelly Reilly). Their relationship is barely fleshed out with the script time and time again resorting to obvious over-the-top depictions of substance abuse (a la Nic Cage's Leaving Las Vegas) and the bickering that follows. Washington's Whitaker hits is lowest point early sitting there until the climax of the film.
Sharing screentime with the intimate tale is the surprisingly comical attempt by the pilot's airline union buddy (Bruce Greenwood) and the company lawyer (Don Cheadle) to get Whitaker into shape. Prepping him for inquisitions looking into evidence from the wreckage and calling upon Whitaker's dealer Harling (John Goodman) to jump start their "hero" when the time is right the two men do everything they can to keep any blame being placed upon Whitaker by the National Transportation Safety Board investigators. The thread doesn't feel relevant to Whitaker's plight and in turn feels like unnecessary baggage that pads the runtime.
Everything in Fight shoots for the skies — and on purpose. The music is constantly swelling the photography glossy and unnatural and rarely do we breach Washington's wild exterior for a sense of what Whitaker's really grappling with. For Zemeckis Flight is still a spectacle film with Washington's ability to emote as the magical special effect. Instead of using it sparingly he once again goes big. Too big.
With his soldier wife Grace deployed in Iraq Midwestern home supply store manager Stanley Philipps (John Cusack) is doing his best to be both mom and dad to Heidi 12 and Dawn 8. He doesn't have much of a support network--the military spouses' group he attends exactly once is all women who spend most of the meeting talking about sex (or lack thereof)--so when he gets the news he's been dreading he has no idea what to do. Unable to tell Heidi (Shelan O'Keefe) and Dawn (Gracie Bednarczyk) that their mom won't be coming home he instead impulsively takes them on a road trip to a far-away amusement park. Bouncy eager Dawn is unreservedly thrilled but introspective responsible Heidi knows something's up. As Stanley fumbles his way toward the sad truth the wounded family's physical and emotional journey proves quietly touching if not wholly gut-wrenching. From the first moment that Cusack appears on screen you know that Stanley isn't one of his typical hyper-verbal hipsters. Dressed in beige and sporting dorky Clark Kent glasses Stanley is 100 percent Regular Guy and Cusack dials down his usual energy to make the character convincing. It sometimes seems like he's overcompensating a bit--only in a few scenes does Stanley really seem to wake up--but the character is a man stunned by grief. Cusack is ably matched by newcomer O'Keefe who's stellar as Heidi. Aged prematurely by her mother's absence Heidi is conscientious and thoughtful with an independent streak that makes her act out even when she doesn't fully understand what's going on. O'Keefe fully inhabits her character making Heidi believable as a daughter a sister (the girls' interactions are refreshingly realistic) and a child on the verge of adolescence. Pushed slightly one way or the other Grace Is Gone could easily have become a propaganda piece either for or against the current war in Iraq. But writer/director James C. Strouse manages for the most part to walk the tricky line between flag-waving patriotism and anti-war zeal. Grace--and her contribution to her country--are honored but the devastation that follows a soldier's fall is made clear. What Strouse doesn't do quite as well is let his audience form their own emotional responses to his film. From the spare bleak score to the wrenching scenes of grief Grace can feel a bit manipulative ("you will be sad now!"). Perhaps for that reason it ultimately doesn't have the impact it clearly intended. Even the climactic cathartic scenes feel a little removed--maybe if we knew Grace like Stanley Heidi and Dawn did we'd be able to mourn her more passionately.