First off, I want to point out that the advertising campaign for the movie Flight is all wrong. In every trailer or TV spot, we are led to believe Flight is about a man wrongly accused of possibly being under the influence of alcohol after a rather horrendous plane crash, all to protect the corporation (in this case, the airline) from any possible litigation. I mean, that’s what I got from the trailers.
The truth of the matter is Flight presents a portrayal of a man whose personal life is in serious trouble. Now, faced with the ramifications of a plane crash, he must come to grips with everything that he is, and everything that he has done, and make a difficult choice that will affect the rest of his life.
Denzel Washington plays William “Whip” Whitaker, the captain of a fictional Southern Airlines flight. During a seemingly routine 56-minute trip from Orlando to Atlanta, the plane has a technical issue and begins to nosedive. Captain Whitaker is able to avoid a full-on disaster and crash land the plane in a South Georgia field, saving 96 of the 102 people on board. But Captain Whitaker also has a secret: he is a raging alcoholic and substance abuser, and an unapologetic alcoholic and abuser at that. In fact, in the scenes leading up to the doomed flight, we see Whip snort cocaine, hit a joint, drink a beer, and shoot three mini-vodkas and a small glass of OJ. So, right off the bat, it is never in question to the audience if he was under the influence or not. We know. We saw.
The real meat of Flight, written by John Gatins and directed with aplomb by Robert Zemeckis, in his first live action film since 2000’s Cast Away, and first R-rated film since 1980’s Used Cars, is Whip’s alcoholism. In fact, the film’s title is actually a metaphor for being high, as Whip spends the majority of the film drunk or stoned or hopped on coke, all the while trying to shore up his defense that nobody could have saved those people, regardless of how drunk or high he really was.
In the hospital, after the crash, Whip meets Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a young heroin addicted photographer whose own life is on its last leg after an OD. In an inspired scene in the hospital stairwell over cigarettes, Nicole and Whip and a nameless young man dying of cancer (in an incredible turn by actor James Badge Dale) all lament on their lives to that point and Whip finds kinship with Nicole.
As the media clamors for answers to what really happened on the ill-fated flight, the pilot’s union sends Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood), an old navy buddy of Whip, and attorney Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle) to sort through what happened and try to clear Whip of any wrong doing, even after he admits to them that he was under many influences on the flight.
The balance of the movie, after the set up of the crash and initial recovery, is all focused on Whip drinking himself to oblivion. Even Nicole finds a way out of that life, but Whip is too far gone and simply keeps crashing and burning in everything that he does, except the plane crash, for which he actually saved most everyone. It’s deep stuff.
Flight works on many levels, and the performances across the board are all top notch. John Goodman even makes a humorous turn as Whip’s dealer/neighbor. The scenes aboard the plane as the problems begin are incredibly intense. In fact, the first 25 minutes are why people go to theaters to watch movies. The packed house I saw the film with held its collective breath during the crash scenes, and the way Zemeckis shot it was incredible. I’m glad Zemeckis has come back to live action, because it sorely missed someone of his remarkable talent. There are scenes in Flight that are just beautiful to watch, even as the character or characters on screen is spiraling so out of control.
And enough cannot be said about Denzel Washington’s performance as Whip. From slurring drunk to raged-out violent, the full gamut of acting emotions are on display in Flight. And the greatest bit of acting from Washington comes from his nuanced portrayal of an alcoholic. To slight tremors in his hands and face, to a tick where he constantly licks the insides of his cheeks and lips, Washington owns Whip Whitaker and I’m pretty confident that Oscar might come calling.
Flight is a film that is more than the sum of its parts. I went in expecting a “corporation vs. an everyman” thriller like, say, Erin Brockovich, and instead I got a very personal story about addiction and the effects it has on those around us. Having seen addiction up close, I can say that Washington, Reilly, and Zemeckis really nailed it. The Hollywood “award season” has officially started, and Flight is easily the first film with an inside track to at least an Academy Award nomination, if not a win in several major categories.
Flight is rated R and opens in theaters everywhere on November 2, 2012.