Historically, Robert Zemeckis’ dramas have worked by harnessing their thick characterizations and exaggerated situations to unabashedly play to the audience’s emotions. From Forrest Gump’s run across America to Chuck Noland’s bald-faced wailing at the loss of his beloved volleyball Wilson in “Cast Away,” Zemeckis’ finest work may be coated in Hollywood sheen, but it nonetheless envelops the viewer with sweeping drama. The filmmaker’s latest effort, “Flight,” sees him return to similarly broad strokes, but this proves to be problematic because, in stark contrast to the emotive narratives of his previous works, it’s about an entirely internal struggle. Zemeckis’ outward style clashes with the film’s introverted subject matter, consistently oversimplifying issues that demand nuance.
The marketing for “Flight” would have you believe that the film is a high-adrenaline courtroom drama about pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) defending himself against charges that he drunkenly caused the crash of a commercial aircraft, despite having saved the lives of nearly 100 people onboard by skillfully rolling the plane upon descent. But the film is actually more about Whip’s inner torment and drug addiction — so far as Zemeckis allows it to be, that is. The story, written by John Gatins, is structured as a meditation on the struggle within one man and lead Denzel Washington offers a believable characterization of someone battling inner-demons. However, the delicate nature of the material is more or less shattered by Zemeckis’ heavy hand and Gatin’s third act theatrics; the team actively forgoes a complex exploration of the nature of substance abuse and guilt in order to build to the last-shot-at-redemption trope that audiences have seen dozens of times.
Zemeckis never even provides the illusion of subtlety, bombarding the viewer with over-the-top stylization from the very first scene, in which Whip snorts cocaine before flying a plane. The camera aggressively zooms in on his face, accompanied by loud rock music. Although the onscreen action alone is compelling enough–and Washington certainly possesses the acting chops to sell it on his own–Zemeckis feels the need to supercharge the drama, as if Whip is about to pilot the DeLorean from the filmmaker’s “Back to the Future.” Zemeckis is equally broad-brushed in his depictions of supporting characters, particularly an Evangelical Christian couple who stereotypically shout “Praise Jesus!” at Whip in order to convince him to fess up to his crimes. Had Zemeckis dialed back the hysterical tone, “Flight” could have been effectively portrayed its intended core themes; instead, it consistently feels as though the director is trying to transform the experience into something it’s not meant to be, only to end up nearly devoid of engaging material.
Given how little it ultimately has to say, the film’s 138 minute running time verges on painful. Once again, this appears to be the result of Zemeckis misjudging “Flight” as conducive to the same kind of epic approach he employed in “Forrest Gump” and “Cast Away.” But “Flight” lacks the dramatic arc of either movie; it’s all about stasis, so all the excessive length allows Zemeckis to do is pad the film with repetitious scenes of Whip getting hammered. If the director intended this to act as the film’s profound addiction motif, it’s only another illustration of the fact that he has no capacity for subtlety. Furthermore, that Zemeckis lingers on these scenes of drunken Whip while only giving the incomparable Melissa Leo five minutes of screen-time represents a considerable misappropriation of resources.
Another major offender in respect to “Flight”’s overlong run-time is a romantic subplot between Whip and fellow addict Nicole (Kelly Reilly). This thread is not only unconvincing—Whip is so unlikeable that Nicole couldn’t possibly see anything in him—but it achieves no discernible change in Whip’s character, despite occupying roughly half the film. Nicole attempts to reform Whip, who proves incorrigible — and Zemeckis putters around with the couple’s scenes solely to illustrate this already obvious character trait. Of course, the trait is then conveniently dropped in the trite conclusion to make the film more dramatically satisfying.
Despite the technical and visual thrills offered by Zemeckis’ recent forays into motion-capture animation with “The Polar Express,” “Beowulf,” and “A Christmas Carol,” those films lacked the essential human element that live-action can provide. Thus, there was reason to await the filmmaker’s return to good, old-fashioned drama. But the fact that the extraordinary plane crash in “Flight” is handled more believably than the protagonist’s arc is a sobering indication of how out-of-his-element Zemeckis is in bringing such an internally focused story to life. It’s understandable that Zemeckis would want to make a film starring actors without sensor-dots attached to their bodies after 12 years of working exclusively in the motion-capture format, but that he came out of the Uncanny Valley to helm a project for which he didn’t meet the job description is unfortunate.
Editor’s Note: This review originally ran on October 19, 2012 as part of Timothy Semenza’s coverage of the 50th New York Film Festival. It has been reprinted for the film’s theatrical release this Friday, November 2.