Most stories, when boiled down, circle around one important question: “Who am I?” That is the crisis the main character struggles with in Robert Zemeckis’s Flight. It has been twelve years since Zemeckis helmed a live action film, with his last being Cast Away (2000). Since then, he has experimented with motion capture animation, to varying degrees of success. Perhaps he should drop that style entirely, because here he shows that he can still craft a well-made movie, and although it is not perfect, it is still a highly engrossing experience. Some may be surprised by how focused the narrative is—this is a deep character study of a person with some serious issues. And while the filmmakers are clearly aware of that fact, the challenge is how they come to grips with it. Sure, we’ve seen stories like this before, but not often are they as effective.
Much of the film’s success is due to a powerful performance by Denzel Washington. This is some of his best work in years, showing a deeply flawed man in complete denial of his situation. Washington has always been good at playing men of authority and control, but he is at his greatest when he uses that as a façade to cover more troubling layers underneath. He plays Captain Whip Whitaker, a veteran airline pilot with experience dating all the way back to his days in the Navy. On a short routine flight, his plane loses stability and enters a nosedive. Remaining cool and collected, Whip manages to pull off an incredible aerial maneuver—involving inverting the plane—to minimize damage and loss of life when they finally crash land. Those viewers who have a fear of flying may look away at this sequence; it is both suspenseful and terrifying in equal doses.
Initially, Whip is seen as a hero for what he did. However, as authorities dig deeper into their investigation, unsettling evidence begin to arise. After taking blood samples while he was in recovery, it is discovered that Whip not only was intoxicated prior to and during the flight, but had a blood alcohol level way above the legal limit. From here, the movie takes a turn and reveals its true intentions, focusing on Whip’s struggles with alcohol and drug abuse. Was it a mechanical failure or Whip’s alcoholism that caused the plane to malfunction? That question is only a part of the whole. Whip’s dependence on booze and narcotics is highlighted, as well as how this severely crippling addiction puts his entire life into shambles. His wife and son left him, and the only real relationships he has are with recovering drug addict Nicole (Kelly Reilly), and his drug-dealing buddy Harling (John Goodman).
The saddest thing is seeing Whip’s state of denial. He always says he could stop drinking if he wanted to; that the life he lives is completely by his own choice. Nicole recognizes this, and knows that if he continues further, he can possibly wind up dead or in jail. But Whip continues drinking (a lot), enabled by Harling, who is more than willing to provide him with enough uppers and downers to his heart’s content. I haven’t seen Washington play such a desperately vulnerable character in a long time. Whip is a good man, but too proud to admit that he has a problem. He tries to escape nearly every time he is faced with that reality. However, only when authorities come looking for him in the form of pilot union representative Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty) and criminal attorney Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle) is Whip finally confronted with it—he has no more places to hide.
The acting work all around was good. I particularly liked Kelly Reilly as Nicole. Zemeckis (along with writer John Gatins) gives her enough development to feel like she’s more than just a supporting character. Her contrast to Whip’s descent makes for a quirky but interesting dynamic. John Goodman is also memorable as Whip’s friendly and outgoing best buddy. Goodman gets a lot of laughs with his performance, so much so that it is kind of out of place. He is funny, but at the same time he is also one of the many sources of Whip’s troubles. If Harling really cared about his friend, he would know when not to give him that extra line of cocaine or that extra sip from the bottle. It seemed as though Harling came straight out of another movie.
Flight has its weaknesses. The pacing is often times slow, and the recycled use of oldies rock and funk stuck out like a sore thumb (I swear, if I hear The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” in a movie one more time, I’ll go nuts). Also, we get a debate about God and destiny versus choice shoehorned in. As hard as the filmmakers tried, those themes never fit in quite right. But despite all that, Denzel Washington’s mesmerizing, heartbreaking performance carries the entire piece above any of my issues, and is deserving of all the critical praise I’m sure it will get.
Final Grade: B+