Directed by: Robert Zemeckis.
Written by: John Gatins.
Starring: Denzel Washington (Whip Whitaker), Kelly Reilly (Nicole), Bruce Greenwood (Charlie Anderson), John Goodman (Harling Mays), Don Cheadle (Hugh Lang), Melissa Leo (Ellen Block), Nadine Velazquez (Katerina Marquez), Tamara Tunie (Margaret Thomason), Brian Geraghty (Ken Evans), Garcelle Beauvais (Deana), Justin Martin (Will).
Denzel Washington delivers one of his very best performances in Flight. Like the recent indie film Smashed, Flight is about an alcoholic who finally hits bottom. But Smashed was a stripped down film – about nothing else other than the main characters struggle with sobriety – whereas Flight is about a lot more than that. It has a complicated plot that requires Washington to hit some very difficult notes. His character is at turn’s drunk, arrogant, in denial, depressed, jovial and over all, is pretty much a selfish jerk for most of the running time of Flight. And yet, Washington never loses our sympathy. His character is placed in a situation in which there are no good options open to him, and who eventually has to make a decision that no matter what he chooses, will not really benefit anyone. More often than not, I prefer the stripped to the down indie over the Hollywood version of the same story – not this time though. Flight is one of the best films of the year – and the rare film that finds new territory to explore in the world of alcoholics. Washington’s performance elevates the entire movie – and the entire supporting cast around him.
Flight opens with a scene that is familiar to all drunks – waking up in the morning, still a little bit drunk from the night before, unsure of what happened, and needing a “pick-me-up” to start the day. Washington’s Whip Whitaker gets this pick-me-up in the form of stale beer and cocaine before heading to work. This would be bad enough no matter what his job was – but since he’s an airline pilot, who has a flight at 9 that morning, it’s even worse. But Whip is a high functioning alcoholic – he knows what he’s doing, and the flight is a short one – Orlando to Atlanta – so even though the weather is bad, he can do this one in his sleep – which after a rough take off, due to weather, is exactly what he does. But late in the flight, things start going horribly wrong. They lose control of the plane and start a nose dive.
What follows is perhaps the most intense plane crash I have ever seen on film. This is where director Robert Zemeckis – making his first live action film after more than a decade making motion capture animation films – really shines. The crash is terrifying, and told in minute by minute detail, as we see everything that happens. This is probably as close as you’re likely to get in terms of experiencing what a plane crash is really like while watching a movie. Miraculously, almost everyone on the plane survives – only 6 deaths out of 102 people on board. When they put other pilots through a simulation to determine if anything could have been done differently by the pilots, not one of them was able to save a single person. But none of that actually matters in the case of Whitaker. They take his blood while he’s unconscious in the hospital – and it shows the alcohol and cocaine in his system. If he’s lucky, he’ll get off with just a few years in jail for flying while intoxicated – if he’s unlucky, he’ll go to jail for life on six counts of manslaughter.
The crash itself is easily the most memorable sequence in Flight – and the most brilliantly directed by Zemeckis. But it’s also only a small part of what makes Flight such a good movie. Most of the movie is about Whip dealing with his alcoholism – mostly by not dealing with it and drinking himself into a stupor day after day, all while trying to avoid the press, and having meetings with his union rep (Bruce Greenwood), who wants to see Whip cleared of any wrongdoing, because it would make the union look bad otherwise, and his lawyer (Don Cheadle), who wants to get him off, because, well, that’s what he is paid for. For a while, Whip gets involved with Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a recovering drug addict he met while in the hospital. For a while, she needs him the same way he needs her – but as she starts putting the pieces of her shattered life together, she realizes that Whip maybe beyond redemption – and if she stays, she may be as well. Washington is brilliant in the movie, and it’s to Reilly’s credit that she matches him in their scenes together. The two characters act as a mirror for each other – to Nicole, Whip is what she doesn’t want to be anymore. With Whip it’s more complicated than that – he knows Nicole has a problem, but he cannot bring himself to admit that he has one. Eventually Nicole will be just another person he has pushed away – like his ex-wife and son, who he lost because of his drinking before the movie even starts. The only person who truly seems to like Whip is Harling Mays (John Goodman) – and that’s because he’s his drug dealer. In just a few short scenes, Goodman leaves a lasting impression on this movie. If Reilly is the angel on Whip’s shoulder trying to convince him to be good, than Goodman is the devil on the other, trying to draw him back to the dark side.
I have seen a lot of movies about drunks over the years – so many in fact that I had begun to feel as if there was little new one could do with the material. While Flight certainly hits the notes that many movies about drunks do, it feels fresh and original – partly because the plot is more complicated than most – the implications of Whip’s alcoholism are not limited to himself, and partly because Washington is so good in the movie. This type of role is like a high wire act for an actor – just how far can he push the audience away, and still have them rooting for his recovery. Flight belongs on a list with films like Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (1945) and Mike Figgis’ Leaving Las Vegas (1995) - and that's good company to be in.