The first 40 minutes of Flight feature perhaps the boldest filmmaking in the career of director Robert Zemeckis. Not only does it further prove his mastery of suspense, his complete command over the physical elements of action, but we find him pushing his characters to the brink of emotional disaster, far-gone into abusive behavior, and he keeps them there, teetering on the precipice between salvation and certain doom. The fact that we care as much as we do about his protagonist, an alcoholic commercial airline pilot named Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington), means that his struggle to face his demons becomes every bit as harrowing an experience as enduring the terror-filled mid-air incident that triggers the entire narrative. After the dust from that expertly directed opening episode settles, though, Flight becomes an awfully familiar melodrama redeemed thankfully by a bracing performance by the world-class Washington.
Whitaker is a powerhouse drunk, the kind of drunk who chugs gallons of vodka like it’s water while behind the wheel. And he’ll snort a few lines to bounce back out of his stupor. When we find him taking the cockpit of his fully loaded plane, Whitaker is coming off a bruising drug and booze-fueled bender. But what should’ve been a short hop from Florida to Georgia ends up being a descent into Hell as Whittaker’s plane loses hydraulics and nosedives. In the ensuing vortex of panic and confusion, Whittaker miraculously lands the plane, saving most of the lives on-board. This entire sequence is worth the price of admission and should be filed among the movies’ greatest air disasters.
What should be a cause for celebration for Whitaker is the beginning of a nightmare as evidence of his blood-alcohol content soon comes to light. And the lawyer representing the pilot’s union (Don Cheedle), along with the union rep (Bruce Greenwood), struggle to keep Whittaker on the straight-and-narrow as they seek to deflect liability away from his drunkenness in preparation for an upcoming NTSB hearing. Hounded by shame, guilt, and anger, however, Whittaker can’t stay away from the bottle. The alcohol is both the source all his anguish — he feels he’s betrayed and abandoned his son and ex-wife due to his drinking — and his only comfort. The comfort, of course, is only an illusion, and it’s that journey towards dispelling the illusion and towards openly admitting (and repenting) his alcoholism that Zemeckis’s movie explores.
Anyone familiar with movie-of-the-week tropes about alcoholism knows the scenes: The drinking binges followed by chastened periods of going clean followed by guilt-fueled relapses followed by the protagonist reluctantly attending AA meetings and so on and so forth until the moment of truth, the moment of utter humility when the alcoholic sees the light. And, yes, we have a fellow traveler on Whittaker’s path too — a heroin addict, Nicole (Kelly Reilly), who’s farther along on the path than Whittaker and who tries to stand him up when he’s down. Anyone who’s seen Days of Wine and Roses (1962), and countless similar dramas, knows their fairly worn-out dynamic.
A shame about Flight is that what’s truly a spectacular (in every sense of the word) first act serves merely as a pretext to a far less interesting and cliche-ridden story about one man’s struggle to find himself. This isn’t to say that the movie isn’t compelling and absorbing: Washington is so wrenching, so heartbreaking — the kind of performance that’s both repulsive and appealing at once — that we forgive most of screenwriter John Gatins and Zemeckis’s lingerings in the familiar. There are some grievous errors that almost sink the whole movie as when John Goodman, playing Whitaker’s Dr. Feelgood, shows up at a critical point and throws the tone of the entire film out of whack. For the duration of his appearance and purpose in the scene, Flight goes from a deadly serious personal drama to some kind of perverse spring-break comedy. How Zemeckis could have miscalculated the nature and tone of his own drama, as evidenced by this scene, is baffling, and it points to a certain disconnect with the material as if he were out of his depth, and he needed to swim to the shallows to liven things up.
The performances are top-drawer across the board, especially Washington’s. He’s an actor supremely adept at playing men puffed up by a misguided sense of themselves only to be humbled by circumstance and deep introspection. Reilly is sweet and committed in a performance that’s largely redundant, while Greenwood and Cheedle hold up the sober end of the ensemble solidly. After Cast Away (2000), Flight is exactly the kind of product you’d by now expect from Zemeckis: Brilliantly crafted and loaded with high-end potential at the outset but which quickly falls into a rather pedestrian tour of monumental themes. As A-list substance-abuse melodramas go, this one lands safely enough.
Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
Written by: John Gatins
Starring: Denzel Washington, Bruce Greenwood, Don Cheedle, Nadine Valazquez, Kelly Reilly, John Goodman