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For Your Consideration: 'Flight'

Flight is Robert Zemeckis’s return to live-action filmmaking for the first time since he was Cast Away so many years ago with motion capture movies such as The Polar Express and Beowulf. Yes, those dead-eyed, eerie semblances of recognizable actors painted over digitally with all the warmth and verve of a hologram resurrection. Working now with his actor, Denzel Washington, it may be the case that all of that lost nuance and fussy human complexity came rushing over him after such a long drought.

The title of the film concerns, in the literal sense, a commercial airline flight that encounters a disastrous mechanical error while being piloted by captain Whip Whitaker (Washington), whom we have just seen coming off a sex, booze, and coke bender with one of his attendants, with little or no sleep dividing the episodes.

While Zemeckis’s execution of the plane sequence and its subsequent landing are as tense and audacious as any we have seen on film (without being overly gimmicky with editing and effects), it is the aftermath that most concerns him. More precisely, what happens to our hero, Captain Whitaker, a man you would never in a million years want at the helm of your airplane. Yet, by all accounts, he is the only one who could have landed the plane without a 100% casualty rate. The true flight in this film is Whitaker's, from himself and others through various episodes towards and away from alcohol. It is also Washington's, soaring beyond anything we have seen him do before.

Zemeckis’s camera has a rare stillness, observing the shifts of Washington’s disturbed and evocative performance. The director has stated that he had to change the way he edited the film because the conventional cutting methods all felt wrong. Each time he cut a version for story points it simply did not feel right. He then realized that Washington’s internal tempo was dictating the rhythm of the story, and when he went with that it all fell into place. The result is a revelation. Rarely has one seen such startled reactions from an audience based on the sheer audacity of a character’s wanton lust for release. Zemeckis, who has been known for his camera wizardry (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump), smartly lies back in wait and then uses push-ins, cuts, and reveals to create unexpected shock in the viewer. After being lulled into a cinéma vérité style of observational cinema, one is then smacked violently by an emotional repercussion of a character’s action.

Washington has said that it was very hard for him to watch this movie. In fact it took him six times before he could really see the movie around him because he felt so self-conscious. This will come as no surprise as the actor seems to be channeling a very ugly, remorseful, and often petty inner life that peeks out through a twisted visage. While Whip attempts to use his characteristic charm and humor as a weapon against this revealing, it keeps seeping through in facial tics he cannot seem to control.

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While the film is centered on the bravura performance of Washington, it is not a solo flight. Zemeckis has surrounded his star with a bevy of smart and experienced supporting actors. Bruce Greenwood, Don Cheadle, Tamara Tunie, Kelly Reilly, and Melissa Leo all have great turns. John Goodman barrels into his scenes as Whip’s reliable dealer, Harling, with such bravado and much-needed humor that the word enabler does not seem big enough to describe him. Reminiscent of his turn in The Big Lebowski, Goodman does not steal scenes, he simply borrows them from Washington when Whip just is not up to it. In a stand-out moment, a lesser-known actor, James Badge Dale, has a show-stopping scene as a cancer patient that will surely draw attention. All of these actors are given the time and space to add poignant reflection to Whitaker’s eventual denouement.

Much has been said about the current state of cinema lacking mature content for adults. We often hear from great directors, “I couldn’t get that movie made now” because tent-pole filmmaking has crushed the mid-size or indie film from the market. Both Zemeckis and Washington took minimum payments up front on hard-to-watch, troubled subject matter with profits only on the back end. For the future of such mature outings, I hope their risk pays off.

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