Paramount's 'Flight' Closes Out 50th New York Film Festival, Lands in Several Oscar Races (Analysis)

Denzel Washington - H 2012
courtesy of Paramount

On Sunday night, the 50th New York Film Festival came to a close after 17 days with the world premiere of Paramount's big 2012 awards contender Flight.

The intense drama was drawn from an original screenplay by John Gatins (Real Steel) and made on an increasingly rare mid-range budget of $30 million. It is the first live-action film directed by Oscar winner Robert Zemeckis since Cast Away (2000) and the first film of any sort to feature real acting by two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington since Training Day (2001).

The former spent the intervening years experimenting with motion-capture technology, and the latter spent them appearing in action movies. It's good to have them back doing what they do best: telling stories about real people.

Like Cast Away, Flight begins by showing the audience a little about a busy man trying to cope with his life, then shows him experiencing a harrowing plane crash before devoting the rest of its screen time to focusing on how he copes - mentally and physically - with the aftermath of the events that he has endured, which have left him largely isolated.

In the case of Flight, the man is Whip (Washington), a first-rate commercial airline pilot who also has substance abuse problems. One morning after a rowdy night, he is in command of a plane with over 100 souls on board when it begins to experience mechanical failure. Rather amazingly, he manages to land it with only a few fatalities.

Initially hailed as a hero - tests show that virtually nobody else could have safely landed the plane like he did - it is soon discovered that he had alcohol and drugs in his blood at the time of the crash, a fact that jeopardizes not only his status as a hero, but his freedom itself.

Washington appears in nearly every frame of the film and gives a tour de force portrayal of the stubbornness and frailties of an addict. The film also stars Oscar nominee Don Cheadle and Bruce Greenwood in the thankless parts of Whip's defenders; John Goodman, who brings down the house in two completely hilarious book-ending scenes; Oscar winner Melissa Leo, who has dialogue in only one scene in the film (I suspect her role was reduced in the editing room or else she wouldn't have taken it); and, notably, Kelly Reilly, a 35-year-old English actress who heretofore was probably best known - in terms of film work - for her appearance in Mrs. Henderson Presents (2005), and who does a fine job as an addict who crosses paths with Whip in the hospital, becomes romantically involved with him, and tries to convince him to seek help like her.

In terms of the Oscars, I think that Washington is all but a lock for a best actor nom; he's one of the most liked and respected guys in the business, and people will be overjoyed to see him back on his game. Reilly has a decent shot at a best supporting actress nom; she could have used one more meaty scene, but the category is shockingly thin this year, and, in recent history, films about self-destructive men have often produced a lead nom for the man and a supporting nom for his female costar. Examples include Mickey Rourke/Marisa Tomei for The Wrestler (2008), Jeff Bridges/Maggie Gyllenhaal for Crazy Heart (2009), Bridges/Hailee Steinfeld for True Grit (2010) and Jean Dujardin/Berenice Bejo for The Artist (2011), etc.

Noms for best film editing, best sound (mixing or editing) and best visual effects are certainly within the realm of possibility, if only because of the film's breath-taking (literally) plane crash sequence, a showpiece that lasts about 10 minutes. The two films with the most similar sort of scene are probably Cast Away and United 93 (2006); the former scored a nom for best sound, and the latter for best film editing, but, interestingly enough, neither registered for best visual effects.

Meanwhile, the film and Zemeckis have only outside-shots, at best, for best picture and best director noms; both categories are packed with more polished and passion-inspiring options.

The film could have been improved greatly by eliminating unnecessary and diverting scenes, like the one with a cancer patient in a stairwell, and replacing them with better development of the Washington-Reilly relationship. Still, it ends strongly, which often leads people to forget the bumps along the way.