Director: Robert Zemeckis
Rating: R (for drug and alcohol abuse, language, sexuality/nudity and an intense action sequence.)
Running Time: 138 Minutes
Release Date: November 2, 2012
Home Video Release Date: TBD
North American Box Office: $TBD
ImageMovers, Parkes/McDonald Pictures, and Paramount Pictures.
Written by: John Gatins.
★★★1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Within seconds, we see that commercial pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is in trouble. With a woman in his hotel, later known to us as Katerina (Nadine Velasquez), a member of his flight crew, Whitaker drinks himself awake, lashes out on the phone against his ex-wife, and then freshens up with two lines of cocaine, readying him to conquer just another day. Already, you may recognize that Flight is a film far different from what the promotional efforts would lead you to believe. Darker, even cynical at times, Flight does document what happens when a plane malfunction forces Whitaker to heroically land a plane in the most improbable of means. Robert Zemeckis’ film becomes much more than just a story about the aftereffects of one heroic event, but takes viewers down a dark and dimly light path of drug and alcohol addiction and the dangers of co-dependency, presenting a character in Whip Whitaker who forces you to make a character judgment somewhere along the pendulum of empathy or disdain.
Serving as director Robert Zemeckis’ first live action feature film since 2000′s Cast Away, Denzel Washington delivers a blistering and fearless performance as Whitaker, the 50-something pilot whose addictions have somehow afforded him the ability to wine and dine female co-workers, ingest an endless supply of alcohol and hard drugs, and inexplicably go undetected with his impairments when it relates to his job performance. When a short 50-55 minute flight from Florida to Georgia struggles mightily through a frightening storm, only to self-destruct a few minutes after attaining cruising altitude. Whitaker, passed out in the pilot’s chair when things start to go bad, snaps to and remarkably, with precision focus and concentration, directs a senior flight attendant (Margaret Thomason) and co-pilot (Brian Geraghty) to help land the plane, directing an improbable and nearly impossible inversion maneuver which allows him to right the plane at the last possible moment and land the plane with minimal damage and loss of life.
Initially, Whitaker is viewed as a hero and with just 6 people losing their lives out of 102 souls on board, his efforts make him a national celebrity. Quickly things turn problematic. After slipping away to his grandfather’s farm to escape attention from the media, Whip’s old friend and current Union representative, Charlie (Bruce Greenwood), introduces him to criminal defense lawyer, Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle). Whitaker is resistant to Lang’s involvement until a hammer drops. Toxicology and blood tests show that Whitaker had more than twice the legal limit of alcohol in his system. Whip shifts focus and insists that he was the only one who could have landed the plane and becomes agitated that the airline gave him a broken and doomed plane to fly. Lang impresses upon Whip that he is facing at chance at life in prison, based on his impaired condition when piloting the flight.
Whip sets out to quit drinking and throws all of his drugs and alcohol away. He swears he will go sober, but has also just met Nicole, a recovering IV drug addict (Kelly Reilly) who originally met Whip in a hospital stairwell where both were recovering – Nicole from an overdose and Whip from his injuries. Whip pursues Nicole, she is open to the relationship, and Whip vows to go on the straight and narrow. But with more and more scrutiny, pressure, and intensity associated with the investigation, Whip starts to falter and must fight his impulses to not only prove he is not an addict, but to also hold on to the potential new love interest in his life.
Flight will stun people with how dark and unflinching a film this truly is. Denzel Washington is stunning in this role, the best he has been in years, and dissolves into Whip’s whims, addictions, destructive tendencies, and heartbreaking behavior with impressive zeal. Many fine actors have portrayed characters mired in debilitating addictions before, but Washington brings his performance to the precipice of derision and empathy, too far gone to save himself, but always flirting with the chance that he may figure things out. John Goodman blasts into the film for a couple of disjointed scenes of comic relief as Whip’s drug dealer, and Kelly Reilly provides a glimpse of a post-addiction life that Whip simply cannot truly see anymore. Nicole is a photographer, progressing in AA, and her relationship with Whip is one of testing not only her mettle and will power, but also places her in a position of savior; one which she is not entirely ready or willing to embrace.
Technically, Flight features impressive sound design and visual effects when it comes to the heart-stopping plane crash sequence Zemeckis places in the opening minutes of the film. Similar to comparable scenes found in Cast Away, Flight ratchets up the intensity, making the unbelievable seem completely plausible. Zemeckis and his team succeed in placing us on that plane, slack-jawed at how everything transpires. Washington is fantastic in these moments especially, reminding us that he is buzzing, but somehow level-headed enough, after his breakfast of drugs and alcohol, to not lose his cool and coherently save as many souls as possible.
The acting is strong and impressive, but Flight is not without its design flaws. The film shifts its narrative tone at will, which may reflect Whip’s worldview, but also lends itself to inconsistency and jarring change-ups. Zemeckis overthinks certain elements of the story, implementing heavy-handed and eye-rolling musical cues to introduce characters, while screenwriter John Gatins (Real Steel) undersells intriguing subplots that seemed quite worthy of exploration. Whip’s relationship with his son is relegated to two scenes, one cliched Drunk-Dad-Challenges-Teenage-Son moment that seldom, if ever, works effectively anymore and a softer, more purposeful scene that buttons up their story. The manner in which Whip nearly derails an NTSB deposition and finds Goodman’s drug dealer swooping in to save the day is goofy and pointless. Most alarmingly, the inevitable scene where the two pilots meet for the first time at the hospital, after the accident, rife with tension and anxiety, ultimately becomes played for comedic laughs. Easily one of the year’s more baffling narrative decisions.
And yet despite some aggravations with Flight‘s screenplay, I was riveted the entire time. Denzel Washington reminds us that when he wants to be, he deserves permanent placement in the upper echelon of the finest actors alive. There will be no surprise from me whatsoever if Washington nets his sixth Oscar nomination for this performance.
Plane crash films are going to be hard to watch for most people, but Flight is a film less about the crash of an airline and more about the crash of the human condition. When Denzel Washington is on screen, Flight soars and staggers you in equal measure. The film is overlong, saddled with cliches and curious choices at times, but sustains as a rather engrossing character study of a man whose spiral unwound a long time ago. With his flight career challenged, Washington’s Whip Whitaker slowly immolates before us, capturing isolation, fear, arrogance, and narcissism, blissfully unaware of what he has lost and may never get back.
SHOULD I SEE IT?
- The premise feels somewhat ripped from the headlines and will interest people.
- Denzel Washington delivers one of the finest performances of the year, and his career, reinventing himself remarkably well in this role..
- Darker and more dramatic then you might think, Flight does get under your skin and leave you processing a great deal of emotion by the time it is over.
- Drug addiction films are sometimes a tough sell and Whip Whitaker is not the nicest character you are ever going to find. Those with a stark opinion about films dealing with drug and alcohol addiction may have no interest in seeing this film in any capacity.
- The plane crash sequence is among the most intense I have ever seen. No joke, those with a palpable fear of flying may want to steer clear from this film; or at least the first 20 minutes or so.
- The cliches and narrative inconsistencies may force viewers to dislike the film. Is it a drama, with comedic moments? Is it a harrowing and dark addiction tale with an honest depiction of the hell that abuse can cause someone? Well, kind of and not really in equal doses. I can see a lot of headscratching happening here.