Director Robert Zemeckis has a new movie out, and it is called “Flight.” It stars Denzel Washington. In it John Goodman has a gleeful turn as a bouncing drug dealer always introduced by the Rolling Stone’s “Sympathy for the Devil.” The movie has a lot of good late sixties and early seventies songs in it, including “Gimme Shelter,” “Goin’ Down,” and “What’s Goin’ On.” Don Cheedle appears in a minor role.
Now we’ve gotten all the good news out of the way. To complete the set, maybe I should add that the film seems sometimes to be against alcoholism. Not always. Viewers will discover that a drunk can become super-competent by snorting a little cocaine while intoxicated. Yeah. Sure.
Zemeckis makes good movies and some really awful ones. His credits include “Romancing the Stone,” “Back to the Future,” “Forrest Gump,” and a good recent “Christmas Carol.” But he’s also made “What Lies Beneath,” “Death Becomes Her,” “Contact,” “Polar Express,” and a version of “Beowulf” that makes the title character into a weakling seduced by Grendal’s mother.
“Flight” is one of Zemeckis’s unsatisfactory movies. As compromised by its own ground clutter as is a cheap weather radar system, it really only has a couple of miscalculations that influence the whole of the film.
One is that the movie makers have thrown out narrative structure in making the movie—all the action and excitement are in the film’s first twenty minutes, and then we are an hour into it before we find out for sure what the central conflict is.
We start with the drunken airline pilot Whittacker (Washington) awakening in a hotel room after a night of sex and drugs and drink. He hurries to the airliner he is to fly. Soon after a take-off in a large rainstorm, the elevator flap sticks, forcing the plane into a steep dive.
Coke-reinforced Whittaker rolls the plane so that the elevator is helping to keep the plane up. Then he finds a field, rolls back to belly down, and slides into the pasture. This is all interesting. And that’s the end of interesting action in the film, though there are still two hours of running time to go.
Another major error is the reliance on Washington’s character to carry the film. He can be an interesting actor, but here he is too cold to be very sympathetic. Viewers won’t be rooting Whittaker on as he prepares to avoid punishment for flying drunk and stoned. They will be wanting justice. When the movie has chances to make the Whittaker character seem less bad—as when he pays back rent so that the junkie girl can leave her apartment—he then benefits personally from what could have been redemptive action—he keeps the woman around his farm for sex.
A third constant weakness is the movie’s reliance on repeated references. TV news, young sons, and Christianity are frequently referred to by the film. There may be more than half a dozen passages of TV news shown. The praying hands appear as a tattoo and in copper relief in a picture frame. The airliner clipped off the top of the spire of a church, members of which pulled the passengers to safety once the plane was down. The movie always refers to those on the plane as “souls,” and so on.
None of these repetitions actually has any effect on any of the events. The conflict is eventually resolved for reasons not obvious to the viewer. This is the way real life is, but movie stories need to do a better job of showing why their characters choose to do what they do.
Zemeckis’s career isn’t a movie. And so no wonder moviegoers can’t figure how the man who made some of those terrific movies could have made “Beowulf.” And “Flight.”