– Summary –
Director : Robert Zemeckis
Year Of Release : 2012
Principal Cast : Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood, John Goodman, Melissa Leo, Tamara Tunie, Brian Geraghty.
Approx Running Time : 139 Minutes
Synopsis: When pilot Whip Whitaker saves 96 people from death in a plane crash, he is lauded a hero. What most people don’t know, however, is that he flew the plan drunk and high on cocaine. Cue the investigation, and Whips personal demons being made public.
What we think : Terrific character piece, with Washington delivering a layered, intense performance as the hero pilot who has deep, dark personal issues. While the film occasionally suffers from a lack of direction with several secondary characters, Washington’s performance provides enough momentum to skirt potential implosion as things go from bad, to worse, to horrendous for his character. The interesting moral and ethical issues on display in this film aren’t as well examined as I’d have liked, but this personal desire gave way to simply enjoying what Zemeckis served up anyway as great entertainment.
Flight contains one of the more prescient story hooks I’ve seen in recent memory. You survive a plane crash, which could have ended in absolute catastrophe but didn’t thanks to the actions of the quick thinking pilot, but then discover that the pilot was actually drunk and high on cocaine. How would you feel about that? If you were the pilot, what would you feel about being a soon-to-be-outed alcoholic in charge of a plane during one of the most frightening moments of your life? And you were hopped up on illicit substances? What makes this even more interesting is that during the investigation of the crash, none of the other pilots given the task to stop the plan crashing in subsequent tests could do what the central character of this film did – and they’re not drunk. So how does one reconcile saving nearly a hundred lives through quick thinking and reaction – nay, instinct – with being absolutely unfit to pilot the plane in the first place? This quandary is played out in Flight, and although the answers aren’t as forthcoming as you’d probably like, the examination of character, fault and personal responsibility is a fruitful one indeed for Robert Zemeckis, star Denzel Washington (who was tapped with a Best Actor nomination at the 85th Oscars), and screenwriter John Gatins.
William “Whip” Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is a pilot for SouthJet airlines, who wakes after an all-night sex, drink and drug session with airline hostess Trina Marquez (Nadine Velasquez), to pilot a plane back to Atlanta. Using cocaine to wake himself up, Whip successfully pilots the plane up into the air; problems arise, however, just prior to the descent into Atlanta, when the plan suffers a major malfunction that causes it to drop altitude at a significant rate. Using his skills, wits and instinct, Whip prevents the plane from plummeting to the ground by inverting it – turning the plane upside down – before gliding it to a controlled crash-landing in a nearby field. Out of 102 people aboard the aircraft, only 6 die in the ensuing crash, including Trina. After waking up in hospital, Whip is visited by an old pilot friend, now union rep Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood), who tells him the investigation is going to occur. Whip’s friend and drug-dealer, Harling (John Goodman) whisks Whip out of hospital to escape the insane media attention his case has garnered, but not before Whip meets fellow hospital patient Nicole (Kelly Reilly), who has recently overdosed on drugs and has been admitted for care. Whip recognizes in Nicole a kindred spirit – Whip is an alcoholic and a drug abuser, but fails to seek the help he needs to overcome his addictions – and takes her to his family farm out in the country, where they bond. Charlie introduces Whip to lawyer Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle), who has uncovered the toxicology report from the accident indicating Whip had significant amounts of alcohol and cocaine in his system at the time of the crash. This will cause a problem for Whip at the investigation hearings, because even though it was a mechanical fault which caused the crash in the first place, it’s likely Whip could be charged with manslaughter were it to be known he was drunk and high at the time he jumped in the pilots chair. Whip must confront his significant demons in order to try and extricate himself from this situation, although his constant battle with drink ensures the ride is never smooth sailing. And when he confronts the lead investigator, Ellen Block (Mellisa Leo) at the hearings, Whip must choose between his own selfish needs and wants, and those of innocent people.
Whip Whitaker is a selfish man. He’s a danger to himself and others. He’s thoroughly reprehensible, if you ask me, in that he thinks it’s okay to pilot a plane carrying hundreds of folks across the country while drunk off his brain and high on crack cocaine. The fact that he’s a better pilot under those conditions is perhaps saying something about his state of mind, but the fact remains that Whip Whitaker is a man we should detest for his cavalier attitude to life, both his and of others. What’s most surprising in Flight is how much we come to care about Whip’s situation, how we are found to want him to succeed, but know he can’t in fighting the charges laid at his feet. Whip’s a broken man, a man at his lowest point – his wife and son have abandoned him due to his drinking (which is fair enough, although Whip doesn’t see it that way), and all his friends have left him as well. Transient existence is all he has left, hooking up with hot-body Trina at airport hotels prior to flying a commercial aircraft seems to be his adrenaline rush, a rush which comes crashing down once his plane does. While the film does offer some examination of the ethical conundrum of Whip’s situation – he’s a saint for saving so many lives, but a demon addicted to drink and drugs, both of which he had in his system at the time he had to save the plane – there’s more emotional baggage in Flight than just that.
Personally, I found Flight was a more focused examination on addiction itself, thanks to both Washington and co-star Kelly Reilly, who deliver terrific performances from the equally terrific script by John Gatins. Gatin’s screenplay spends time developing the bond between Whip and Nicole, and although it doesn’t have the payoff I’d have liked, it’s easily the most accomplished part of the emotional through-line of the film. The crash itself, which is superbly directed by Zemeckis (in what is a typically technically sublime effort from him) is harrowing indeed, and perhaps the most realistic in recent memory (although the crash in The Grey is equally well done, if not quite as potent visually), but it’s the softer, more human moments in Flight that linger long after the credits have rolled. Eschewing his usual magician’s hat of tricks, Zemeckis delivers a fairly (for him) straightforward dramatic film this time – his first film in live action since 2000’s Cast Away – it’s such a departure from the usually hyper-kinetic director that it seems quite….well, simple, compared to many of his others. Perhaps after years of effects-driven films, including The Polar Express and Cast Away, Zemeckis was looking for something different to re-enter the fray of live-action, and if this is his opening salvo, then it’s a wonderful one indeed.
Denzel is terrific as Whip. He’s flawed, he’s broken, he’s a failure as a human being, thanks to the drinking. Of course, his journey to discover that fact is what dominates proceedings, with Whip’s cavalier attitude to his friends and family alike driving most of them away from supporting him. Charlie, a character which gives Bruce Greenwood little to do other than describe what’s going to happen to Whip with the investigation, is his staunchest supporter, and even he begins to question Whip’s responsibility. Don Cheadle plays the straight-up lawyer intent on covering up Whip’s addictions and giving him a “get out” clause from indictment over the affair, and you can sense his frustration with having to deal with a man of Whip’s problematic personality. Confrontational and belligerent, Whip is – as I said before – not a nice man, really. Where the film hits the home run with emotional connection to the audience, is whenever Whip and Nicole, played by the lovely Kelly Reilly, arrive on the screen together. Their dynamic is interesting, in that they both approach their addictive personalities differently. Former drug addict Nicole is actively seeking the way out, while Whip is content to divert attention and remain addicted, seeing himself as above the problem altogether. Reilly is marvelous, certainly with some meaty scripting to get her teeth into, and a far cry from the frivolous role of Watson’s girlfriend in the Sherlock Holmes films by Guy Ritchie. And keep an eye out for scene-chewing John Goodman, who steals the film away from everyone as the garrulous, don’t-give-a-crap drug dealer Harling. Goodman’s a riot in this.
Where the film flails about a little is when the attention isn’t solely on Whip and Nicole. The film lumbers like a drunken sailor (and I appreciate the irony in that statement) when it spends time dealing with elements I really wanted Zemeckis to delve into – Whip’s culpability in being drunk at the wheel (so to speak) and still managing to save so many lives was the most interesting element of the film, and Gatins’ script touches on it several times without really “getting” into it too deeply. The parallels with the famed Miracle On The Hudson incident in New York, where pilot Chesley Sullenberger successfully landed a commercial jet on a freakin’ river, saving everyone on the plane, and this film’s central story hook, are remarkable – although I must say that Sullenberger never struck me as the drinking type, and he’s everything Whip Whitaker is not – and one gets the sense that Zemeckis and Gatins must have seen that as a starting point for their story. The relationship between Whip and his ex-wife and son isn’t developed until quite late in the film, and it’s in this moment of confrontation that Whip comes off as something of a douche (which, until then, has earned our sympathy, but here he swipes that aside and I actually detested him for that), and I felt Greenwood and Cheadle weren’t given enough time in the film to really flesh out their parts, which disappointed me as I felt Cheadle in particular had enough chutzpah in his lawyer character to really go toe-to-toe with Washington’s. Melissa Leo, as the much feared investigator of the crash, Ellen Block, never delivers on that hype of fear, and ends up just listless as the film simpers to its conclusion.
Yeah, Flight’s conclusion is actually pretty tame, considering all the power Zemeckis invested in the opening and the midsection. There’s build-up and tension, but once Whip fronts the industry investigation panel, things just fall apart for both him and the film, as Zemeckis tries to wring every moment of emotion from it (and us) but can’t quite manage to do it successfully. I wouldn’t outright call it disappointing, but considering where the film has taken us, and how good it is for the majority, it’s certainly a little lacking in impetus. As well as this, I also felt the lack of resolution to the Whip/Nicole relationship to be something annoying. Nicole’s written out of the film with about twenty minutes to go, in a manner which initially suggests she might return as Whip undergoes his time at the hearing, but she doesn’t. She leaves Whip a “dear John” letter, which we never see or know what’s on, and she just leaves the film…. there’s a void with her vanishing too, because Whip’s a stronger character when he’s bouncing off of her emotionally. Without Nicole in the film, Flight is a lesser entity.
Having just re-read my previous couple of paragraphs, I seem to have given the impression that Flight left me with a lot of unanswered and unresolved emotional story beats. Truth is, it did, but that’s not really a problem here, given that Washington more than makes up for any weaknesses in Gatins’ screenplay with a resoundingly powerful performance of a man flawed personally, floored professionally, and utterly introspective of his own circumstances. Zemeckis goes for the occasional cheap emotional moment (particularly when dealing with Whip’s alcoholism and his attempts to give it up) but the rest of the films narrative is rock solid. At just over two hours, the film never feels overlong or bloated (which is good), although in saying that I wished they’d dealt with issues seemingly too difficult to shoehorn into the film such as the moral and ethical dilemma of having a drunk at the wheel who actually outperforms somebody sober, but Flight’s end result is still eminently entertaining.
Those who favor a more conservative bent will find the opening scene somewhat confronting (it involves full frontal female nudity), as well as learning the going rate for anal in porn, but those willing to delve into Flight’s more intellectual pursuits will find a film filled with conundrums and human frailty. It’s an occasionally brave film, an altogether technically superb film, and a dramatically sound effort at extolling the difficulty at overcoming addiction (of any kind); Flight is a very, very good film.