Release Date: November 2nd, 2012 (US); February 1st, 2013 (UK)
Genre: Drama; Thriller
Starring: Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood
It does not take long for Robert Zemeckis’ Flight to race into full throttle and deliver the intense plane crash scene from which much of the buzz surrounding the film has emanated. However, the film quickly switches gears and ends up spending most of its time delving into a more subtly intense story about a man’s plight against addiction — a ruthless concoction of lies, alcohol and drugs succinctly summed up by the lead character’s quip, “Don’t tell me how to lie about my drinking”. It becomes a dramatic character study rather than an event-driven thriller, and with each extra lie that Denzel Washington’s Whip tells, or additional drink he swigs, you just want to give him a shake and remind the heroic pilot that he can be a decent human being.
Whip Whitaker is a seemingly disenfranchised airline pilot who spends his evenings with co-workers (more specifically, air hostesses) in hotel rooms partaking in substantial alcohol consumption and drug use — and that is only on pre-flight nights. He awakens from his extravagantly unprofessional routine one morning both sleep-deprived and lumbersome, before heading out to captain a flight to Atlanta. After successfully, and somewhat surprisingly, manoeuvring his plane through a bout of rough turbulence, an alcohol-influenced Whip is forced to execute an emergency landing in a field. A plane crash is a once-in-a-thousand-lifetimes event that, for the vast majority of us, is something only experienced through the likes of news reports or documentaries. Zemeckis and cinematographer Don Burgess do a nail-bitingly horrifying job of emulating the chaos, destruction and terror of such an event, far eclipsing the director’s tumultuous Cast Away aviation incident. Washington’s poise is both unsettling and admirable as a captain who is just as dependent on booze and drugs as his passengers are on his flying skills.
Whip awakens in hospital a hero to the public but quietly uncertain and continuously seeking reassurance over his role in the crash. “My [condition] had nothing to do with the plane falling apart,” is often closely followed by, “Nobody could’ve landed that plane like I did”. The film does not shy away from making clear that the doomed aircraft was a result of mechanical failure, but a combination of Whip’s pre-flight misdemeanours and post-crash internal conflict raises doubt. Is there the possibility that Whip’s demons lead to the accident? Zemeckis’ direction plays a role in casting this ambiguity over proceedings, however Washington’s depiction of a man unravelling creates doubt not where there should be none, but where there is none.
The Academy Award winner has the stench of alcohol protruding from him throughout the film and stands out, in particular, in two scenes of mental jousting. The first, soon after cleansing himself and his life of all toxic substances by way of sink or toilet, sees a fidgety Whip down his first drink in the knowledge that he is facing potential criminal prosecution. The second comes towards the end of the film where Whip is surrounded by people, but more alone than ever as he juggles morals in his head. It is testament to Denzel Washington’s acting abilities that he ensures Whip commands sympathy in spite of all of his negative traits. Perhaps this is partially down to those traits tearing away at nobody but Whip himself — “What life?” is how highly he regards his existence. It is eerily fitting that said traits, which without aid are leading to the downfall of the man himself, are also responsible for saving the lives of many others.
Flight is not without faults. The film does an excellent job of creating the Kelly Reilly character, Nicole, who sets off in the same place as Whip but ends up moving in the opposite direction. Reilly is convincing as a manipulable heroin addict trying to turn her life around, and she shares an intriguing if not entirely believable relationship with Whip (although this lack of believability is probably the point). However her character fails to really go anywhere. There is also a very noticeable comedy element which rears its jokey head every so often, and every so often it fails to fit in with dark nature of events. Or at least is should fail. Bizarrely, the humour provides some welcome light relief, with John Goodman often the vehicle of funny. Don Cheadle and Bruce Greenwood succeed in their semi-conflicting roles (both are there to help Whip, but only one shows affection towards him). James Badge Dale also makes a scene-stealing cameo as a dying man in the hospital and delivers film’s best one-liner after receiving a carton of cigarettes from Whip.
Ultimately, Flight sets out to tell the story of a man struggling through addiction while encased in special circumstances, and it does this very well. Denzel Washington’s engrossing performance at times teeters on the incredible, and just like the Coke can that follows Whip around his hotel room reminding him of what he cannot have, Washington’s prominence on screen provides another reminder of just how great a performer he is. Not that anybody needed reminding.