Denzel gets a bumpy ride

Denzel Washington is Whip Whitaker in Flight.
Denzel Washington is Whip Whitaker in Flight.

Flight (MA)

3 stars

General release (138 minutes)

Among the Oscar contenders now in Australian cinemas, Flight is the most unusual: a ''serious'' drama not based on famous source material or a notable historical event. Its ad campaign seems bent on misrepresenting its tone and subject matter as thoroughly as possible - encouraging audiences to expect an action-thriller, when the director Robert Zemeckis has something very different in store.

In fact the sole action set-piece in Flight occurs during the first half-hour, shortly after we're introduced to the cocky, boozy Captain Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) as he wakes late in a Florida hotel room after a night spent with one of his flight attendants (Nadine Velazquez).

After fielding a phone call from his ex-wife, he snorts cocaine to stave off the effects of alcohol and heads for the airport to pilot an hour-long flight to Atlanta, taking off in the middle of a storm.

Up in the air there's an apparent mechanical failure, forcing Whip to think fast and take risks in the hope of minimising the impact of the crash.

The sequence allows Zemeckis, as well as his hero, to show off his mastery, immersing us in chaos and terror while ensuring that the consequences of Whip's choices are plainly spelled out.

Knocked unconscious on landing, Whip wakes in hospital to find his real troubles have just begun. The balance of the film is chiefly an exploration of his addictive personality and how it affects those around him, notably his female counterpart Nicole (Kelly Reilly), who overdoses on heroin at the same time as Whip's fateful flight.

Despite the virtues of Washington's surprisingly restrained performance and John Gatins' slightly overblown script, Flight is first and foremost a showcase for Zemeckis as a director. While it's easy to see him as a chilly virtuoso, the film self-evidently qualifies as a personal statement, not least as an expression of his interest in machinery.

This influences not only his selection of subject-matter but his approach to storytelling: his films are like pieces of clockwork, where every detail planted early on has a pay-off down the track. If his Back to the Future movies were obsessively concerned with replaying the past, this is equally the case here, where the narrative inexorably circles back to the events leading up to the crash.

As in all Zemeckis' work, this streamlined technique entails a certain reliance on cliches and obvious symbols. Nicole's associates are portrayed as cartoonish scumbags, and when a wing of the descending plane knocks the steeple off a church it's a blunt reflection of Whip's spiritual plight.

More interestingly, Zemeckis' mechanical mind puts objects and people on an equal footing; in this sense, the two sections of the film mirror one another.

Where Whip's actions up in the air allow him to seize control of the plane, on the ground he's controlled by his environment, especially when the camera tracks in on liquor bottles that exert a malign pull.

The biggest surprise of Flight is its overall sombre quality, which does some justice to the slow process of recovery from addiction. The excitement of the crash is deliberately inverted in a long series of subdued scenes that emphasise the solitude Whip shares with the hero of Cast Away, the Zemeckis film Flight most recalls.

While Whip is surrounded by morally ambivalent guardians, including a boisterous drug dealer (John Goodman) and a hotshot lawyer (Don Cheadle), the choices he has to make are his alone.

Ultimately, changing his behaviour means both regaining and relinquishing control - accepting, as Cheadle's character puts it, that whatever occurs is an act of God.

This story Denzel gets a bumpy ride first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.