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It’s been 12 years since director Robert Zemeckis stepped behind the camera for a live action feature. Having become seemingly obsessed with motion capture technology over the years, he has pumped out The Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol in that time, raising the visual bar while neglecting the raw emotion that made his previous movies like Cast Away and Forrest Gump so successful. Finally, Zemeckis is back trying to capture that feeling again with this week’s Flight. Although the attempt is nothing less than admirable and welcome, the execution is inconsistent. For every subtle point it makes, it pounds you over the head with another and for every emotional scene it creates, it ruins it with over-the-top melodrama soon after. What could have been a truly great movie, one that vied for end of year awards and “Best of 2012” spots turns into a functional, if underwhelming, drama that strikes out just as often as it home runs.

The film begins with a man named Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) waking up in a hotel room, hung over from the night before. It’s instantly clear that the man has a substance abuse problem and he verifies it soon after by snorting a line of coke. Whip is actually a pilot and he’s scheduled to fly just a few hours from now. When he arrives on the plane, he seems his normal self, but he’s still under the influence of the alcohol and drugs in his system. Unluckily for everyone on board, there is an equipment malfunction and the plane starts going down. Calm and collectively, Whip takes drastic measures to land the plane as safely as possible and ends up saving 96 out of 102 people on board. Soon afterwards, he becomes a national sensation, partially because of his heroic actions and partially because of an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board that found drugs in his blood. With the help of attorney Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle) and the love of a recovering junkie, Nicole (Kelly Reilly), he sets out to clear his name, despite his wrongful actions.

And thus begins a film whose structure has you at constant odds with yourself. Whip clearly put the lives of the people on the plane in danger when he showed up drunk and high on drugs, but the cause of the crash was not his own. There was a mechanical failure that caused the plane to go down and it was Whip’s clear-headedness and professional actions that ultimately saved those people on board. As pointed out later in the movie, there are only a handful of people who could do what he did—other pilots acting out simulations all failed and killed everyone on board. Without him, they would all be dead. But does that fact excuse his state of being? Should he be brought to justice for the drugs in his body or should he be heralded as a hero? Finding a clear answer isn’t easy and this is where the film works best. It doesn’t ever seem to take sides one way or the other and it lets you come to your own conclusion based on the evidence that is presented.

With a narrative such as this (spoilers!), the main character needs to have some type of redemptive moment, some type of realization that he’s heading down the wrong path in life and needs to shape up. This is where the film misses the mark. Rather than create an arc for the character, his eventual redemption comes suddenly and all in one late scene, so close to the credits that the emotional repercussions don’t have time to resonate. Whip’s decisions prior to this moment hardly do enough to set up such feeling, so it likely won’t matter to the majority of viewers anyway. This late climax is followed by perhaps one or two quick scenes, which are full of the most heavy-handed monologues and dialogue exchanges you can imagine, that further devolve Flight into little more than an average experience.

In the end, what really convinced me to recommend Flight is its incredible plane crash opening. Although I can’t speak for its authenticity when looking at it from a real world perspective, I can say that it’s one of the most frightening and intense things you’ll see all year. It sets the bar high for a movie that should have been as emotionally gripping as it was viscerally exciting, but, unfortunately, that bar isn’t reached or even come close to. Like many of this year’s so called “Oscar contenders,” Flight has the ingredients to be something special, but struggles to get off the ground.

Flight receives 2.5/5

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