If you watch the trailers for “Flight” you come away expecting this to be a movie about a doomed flight and the heroic pilot who tries to save it. But as with so many trailers whose lone goal is to sell a product, this isn’t the case at all. It’s the story of a self-destructive man whose many vices are brought out into the spotlight by one heroic deed. It marks Robert Zemeckis’ return to live action movies, this being his first since “Cast Away” in 2000.
“Flight” stars Denzel Washington so automatically there’s one thing you know for sure – the lead performance is going to be strong. Here he plays an airline pilot named William “Whip” Whitaker. After a mostly sleepless night of booze, drugs, and sex with one of his flight attendants, Whip heads out to pilot a commercial airliner from Orlando to Atlanta. I don’t think this will be scheduled as an in-flight movie anytime soon. Right off the bat the film introduces us to Whip’s raging alcoholism. Before the flight even takes off, he slips two travel bottles of vodka into his orange juice before heading into the cockpit. Washington handles this subject matter like an old pro. Scene after scene we see him in his self-inflicted hell and as despicable as his actions are, he causes us to feel sympathy for this character.
After taking a questionable risk to get through some turbulence after takeoff, Whip falls asleep while copilot Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty) flies the plane. But he’s jarred awake after the plane goes into a nose dive while approaching Atlanta. Whip takes control of the situation and pulls off an incredible series of maneuvers before landing the plane in a field. Watching this was an incredibly intense visual experience and its one of the best movie moments from last year. The impact knocks him unconscious and he later wakes up in an Atlanta hospital. He learns from pilot union head and old friend Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood) that his heroics saved 96 people of the 102 on board.
This creates one of the most interesting dynamics in the entire film. As Whip says, “No one else could have landed that plane” and his heroics seem unquestionable. But due to the loss of life, mandatory investigations have to take place which uncover his drunkenness during the time of the crash. As I mentioned above, his one amazing deed which saved many lives turns out to reveal his darkest secrets. A team is put together to try and cover up his intoxication. Charlie brings in attorney Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle) who believes he has all the pieces to keep things under wraps. But it turns out that Lang is not just fighting the evidence. He’s fighting the uncontrollable alcoholism of his client.
“Flight” does good when it stays on course and focuses on Whip’s problems and the potential trouble he faces due to the crash. Washington is amazing to watch and I also really liked Greenwood and Cheadle. But there’s also a side story where Whip gets together with a recovering heroin addict (Kelly Reilly). This really didn’t work for me at all other than to show the depths of Whip’s fall via a handful of scenes. The two seem to connect through their desperation but as a whole I just didn’t buy into or care about their relationship. Unfortunately this takes up a big hunk of the middle part of the picture and I can think of other ways I wish they would’ve spent that time.
I also didn’t care for what I feel was Zemeckis’ gratuitous use of some of his content. The opening features a nude scene which goes on and on and (as is often the case) adds nothing to the film. Zemeckis pulls his camera back and for seemingly no other reason than to have nudity in his picture, he keeps it going while Nadine Velazquez parades around while on display. I had similar feelings about John Goodman’s character. No, thankfully he doesn’t walk around in the buff, but his character’s foul mouth seems so forced. I know he’s a dope dealer but his dialogue is at times terrible and it seems like it’s straining to include profanity. I’m not trying to get on a soapbox about movie content, but both of these instances in “Flight” really pushed me away.
Unfortunately these gripes of mine played a big role in my overall experience with “Flight”. There’s a really great movie somewhere in what we get but you have to cull the wasted moments to get to it. Washington is wonderful as always and through his performance we see a fascinating study on addiction and personal destruction. I only wish the movie could have stayed focused on it and that Zemeckis didn’t lose control of his mesmerizing central story. With a little pruning and a tighter vision, I think this could’ve been an even better film than it was.