Flight (2012) / Drama

MPAA rated: R for drug use, alcohol abuse, language, sexuality, nudity, and an intense action sequence
Length: 138 min.

Cast: Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, Bruce Greenwood, Don Cheadle, John Goodman, Tamara Tunie, Brian Geraghty, Melissa Leo
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Screenplay: John Gatins
Review published January 10, 2013

Flight 2012Robert Zemeckis (A Christmas Carol, Beowulf) returns to plane crash territory (after Cast Away, his last live-action vehicle) with Flight, though the film is about more than an in-air tragedy by a long shot. With the exception of a truly magnificent opening act that depicts a plane out of control, the film is really about a man struggling to come to terms with his addiction, and how alcoholics can throw away so much -- their families, friends, and careers -- when the choice comes between them and their drinking habits.

Denzel Washington (Safe House, The Book of Eli) stars as Capt. Whip Whitaker, an airline pilot and alcoholic whose expertise in the air is put to the test when his commercial airliner experiences a mechanical malfunction that sends the plane into a dive. Whitaker saves the plane in a miraculous feat of skill, but the crash is not without casualties, as four passengers and two crew members die. Whitaker is immediately heralded as a hero, despite the loss of life, due to saving most everyone else on board. The honeymoon is short-lived, as he is visited by a union rep (and personal friend) named Charlie (Greenwood, Barney's Version), and a no-nonsense corporate lawyer, Hugh Lang (Cheadle, The Guard), and preparations are made to save everyone a good deal of embarrassment. As with any commercial crash, lawsuits emerge, and the investigation by the National Transportation and Safety Board is on as to Whitaker's state of mind during the flight, particularly if he had been drinking before or during the flight, an act that leaves the airline in serious jeopardy of liability.

How Flight is perceived may likely be related to viewer expectations coming into it. Those looking for an airplane disaster and survival film should be warned that the flight shown so prominently in trailers and advertisements only comprises about a quarter of the film's running time. The actual flight and subsequent dive is riveting and very well developed from a technical standpoint, further solidifying Zemeckis as the director to go to for large-scale effects films. Most of the rest of the time is split between Whip's upcoming legal deposition, his attempts to stay sober, his agonizing over the wife and child who left him due to his habits, and his newfound relationship with Nicole, a heroin junkie-on-the-mend that he meets during his stay in the hospital.

As with most Denzel Washington starring vehicles, the best thing about Flight is his stellar performance within it. Denzel lets himself look unflattering, out of shape with an egotistical personality, less evocative of sympathy even for a man who is so obviously pathetic. In addition to his days-long drinking binge, we also see Whip doing coke and talking about how little sleep he had gotten, having had a night of debauchery with one of the flight attendants the evening before. Amazingly, he's still one of the best pilots there is, despite all of what's going on in his system, but it's his attitude of invincibility that makes him unlikeable, never once seeming to worry that any of his actions before or during the flight will ever impair his judgment in the slightest. Neither good nor evil, Whip is a mix of admirable qualities and reprehensible ones, and Washington plays such a complex character in such a way that has us root for Whip to succeed in life even though he completely deserves any comeuppance that may come his way as a result of his poor decisions made when the steering controls aren't in his hands.

The rest of the cast is quite fine, though the best of the supporting actors, Cheadle and Greenwood, aren't given enough screen time to give us fully fleshed out characters. The character of Nicole (Reilly, Sherlock Holmes), on the other hand, is a bit more problematic, as she is given a good deal of build-up only for her to become mostly a sideline issue in terms of the plot, and ultimately ends up as little more than a story device. Same can be said for John Goodman's (Argo) drug dealer character, Harling Mays, who provides the closest thing the film has to comic relief. Goodman's not always so authentic in roles of eccentricity, so his character feels a bit out of place as it is. One other distraction is the repetitious playing of the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil" when he appears on screen, which was a song that was also prominently featured in a previous collaboration between Goodman and Washington, Fallen. In fact, the entire soundtrack seems to match song for scene in all too obvious a way (Joe Cocker's "Feelin' Alright" when Whip has his fix, and "With a Little Help from My Friends" plays on an elevator after Whip has been given cocaine to level him off after a drinking binge).

The flight of the title isn't just about the literal flight at the start of the film, but also the metaphorical flight that Whip undergoes into more bottles of alcohol whenever he thinks he needs something to get him over any of life's various humps. It's not just the plane that's in a nosedive, it is Whip's very life, and just as it is on the plane, the only man who can save Whip is Whip himself. But on the plane, he's a take-control guy, yet he refuses to take any sort of control over his own life. Zemeckis is a man who enjoys his motifs, as the constant allusions to religion throughout the film suggest a fall from grace that will take a test of his own will in order to find salvation from. As a couple of evangelical characters within the film claim, even amid the tragedy, there may be a reason to rejoice, as it may be part of God's plan (here, Jesus' name is invoked) in order to remedy oneself from a life of great sins.

As turbulent as the beginning of the flight depicted in the film, Zemeckis is able to use his skill with not only the technical aspects of the piece, but also some of the introspective emotional ones as well. Some of the film feels like manufactured movie parts, but at the heart of the film, there's always Denzel Washington as our pilot, using his seemingly effortless skills to navigate us through the patchiest of film clichés. Those seeking something more than a quality drama may remain aloof, but for those who enjoy seeing the trials, tribulations and triumphs of troubled souls, Flight remains high-quality, thought-provoking fare.
Qwipster's rating:

©2013 Vince Leo