The best film I’ve ever seen about addiction*. Not without its flaws, but a great, totally entertaining ride from master director Robert Zemeckis, a certified pilot himself, making an original story that would most certainly have not gotten made if it weren’t for the noble efforts of Mr. Zemeckis.
February 3, 2012. Myself and three others were lucky enough to spend a few hours with Robert Zemeckis. We got to talk at length about anything and everything, about film and social media and modern society. He is easily one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever spoken to, if not the most intelligent. After those precious few hours, he became a hero and a role model. I know I’ll sound like I’m preaching some religious gospel, but he spoke of a coming revolution in film. He spoke of my favorite film, The Social Network, and how it was far and away the best film made in the past two years, and that only a few others had been made competently. He talked about how when he and his friends were in film school, they hated everything but Hitchcock. All they wanted to do was revolutionize filmmaking. Change it. Make it meaningful. Change the world. And they did. For better in many ways, for worse in others, he contends. But he spoke of a coming revolution, a necessary revolution, because this severely broken culture needs it, now more than ever. And he didn’t know where it would be headed, but he knew that from now on he’d try to do the best he could to set a good example for it. He declared to us in that room that he’d never remake a film, or make an unnecessary sequel, or otherwise make unoriginal, uninspired or unimportant material again. And he spoke of the film that would launch all of that: Flight.
He spoke of an inspired script by John Gatins–original, powerful and adult. Gatins had long intended to direct Flight, but leaped at the chance for Zemeckis to take his spot. While the script isn’t necessarily perfect–it suffers from some ill-advised tonal shifts that, while working effectively on their own, don’t seem to flow well together–it creates a moving character study that’s sometimes funny, always real, and surprisingly gripping. Interesting themes are explored, and there are more than a few beautiful, revealing character moments.
He spoke of Denzel Washington, giving one of his finest performances. He wasn’t lying. Denzel should easily be a part of this year’s Oscar conversation for his portrayal of a cocky, amazing pilot with alcoholism. He brings a gravitas, a distinctly male sensibility to the character, and a reality to the horrors of alcoholism. But he’s not the only brilliant performer. The surprising scene-stealer Kelly Reilly (the Sherlock Holmes films) makes Nicole, his love interest and recovering addict feel equally real and easily holds her own with Denzel’s powerhouse pilot. John Goodman makes his mostly-comic relief character soar (see what I did there), Melissa Leo makes her single scene phenomenal, Bruce Greenwood and Don Cheadle are, as always, rock-steady, and Tamara Tunie, as one of the flight attendants on board the doomed airliner, brings a graceful subtlety in a performance that I believe will be unfairly overlooked.
The reason the film is so excellent, though, is because of Zemeckis’ controlled, powerful direction that takes the audience on a tension-filled ride the whole way through. Zemeckis is one of the few elite directors around today that can make people really feel something in the theater. He can create jump scares from the most subtle of character moments, create tangible tension in even the most mundane scenarios, and immerse you in the dark, complex world of a dark, complex man, and make you love to watch him. It’s an x-factor that pushes beyond technical mastery to tap into something deeper. In the film’s first scene, there’s a riveting, distinctive shot of Denzel’s character doing cocaine. This shot is technically masterful on so many levels, and immerses the audience so deeply in the world almost immediately. I’m not a particularly visual filmmaker, but I recognize and appreciate the effectiveness of directorial action such as that.
Speaking of cinematography, Don Burgess creates an often beautiful film, with a few distinctive shots for good measure. Another Zemeckis longtime-collaborator Alan Silvestri delivers a subtle, spellbinding score, as per usual. Jeremiah O’Driscoll, who worked his way up from apprenticeship to assistant editor to full-on editor over the course of the past 20 or so years, proves his mettle in live-action films with a clean, taut and character-driven editing style that subtly enhances the emotional content of the film.
This is a rare film. Exploring the treacherous waters of addiction is a risky pick in today’s no-budget-or-big-budget business, and it certainly took the courage of a well-respected director like Zemeckis to get this made. Hopefully, this film does well at the box office, and studios realize that the Transformers and Paranormal Activity films aren’t the only way to make money at the multiplex. Hopefully, adult dramas will return with the ambition that this film exemplifies.
It’s not perfect by any means, but it’s damn good, and real adult dramas need to make a comeback. And for those reasons, it’s definitely worth the price of admission.
*Disclaimer: Still haven’t seen Trainspotting or Requiem for a Dream.