“Flight” has been sold to us as a story of an airplane pilot who makes a miraculous crash landing, only to test positive for alcohol after the incident and wind up being unfairly persecuted by the regulatory agencies investigating the crash. In truth, Denzel Washington’s character, Whip Whitaker, is a fully blown alcoholic and drug addict, and the film revolves around substance abuse and the struggle for recovery more so than it does the crash and its investigation.
Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is a pilot with a problem. A drinking and drugging problem. While on layover in Orlando, he and a stewardess have an all-nighter prior to a one hour return flight to Atlanta. Needing a little pick-me-up to make it through, Whitaker snorts a few rails before leaving the motel and grabs a couple of vodka bottles from the service cart to fix himself a screwdriver once onboard.
After a turbulent takeoff demonstrates Whitaker’s talent as a pilot, the plane experiences a sudden jolt just prior to descending to land and literally begins to fall out of the sky. With a panicky co-pilot, an unresponsive airplane and half drunk, Whitaker makes a landing that is nothing short of a miracle. Only six of the 100+ people aboard perish. The investigators will later attempt to simulate the landing, but 10 different pilots fail. All of whom lacked Whitaker’s skill, bravado, and buzz.
The crash makes national news. It’s also the focus, as all crashes are, of an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. While Whitaker insists the plane experienced mechanical failure, NTSB procedures include blood toxicology tests, and Whitaker’s glow in the dark. Regardless of whether or not his intoxication caused the crash, flying while drunk is a felony, and people died during the crash. The would leave Whitaker open to manslaughter charges, not to mention lawsuits for criminal negligence.
So while his pilot union rep (Bruce Greenwood) and his union provided attorney (Don Cheadle) try to save his ass from jail, Whitaker has to pull his shit together and stop drinking. Which actually quickly becomes the focus of the movie. While recovering from the crash in the hospital, Whitaker meets a heroin addict coming off of an overdose (Kelly Reilly) and a tentative romantic relationship ensues. Tentative due to the fact that they’re both taking steps towards sobriety, and their own individual issues threaten to get in each others way.
“Flight” is director Robert Zemeckis’ return to live action since 2000’s “Cast Away”. And for the most part, he does a fine job. The crash sequence is extremely intense, and while there aren’t any memorable performances per se, he gets his money’s worth out of the cast. To Zemeckis’ credit, he also does a great job injecting some flash here and there… for example, seeing Denzel get tweaked and then roll out of his motel room in full Pilot uniform to Joe Cocker’s “Feelin’ Alright” was brilliant. And John Goodman’s drug doctor “emergency visit” was laugh out loud funny, too, although… I may have been laughing inappropriately, judging by the rest of the theatre.
The issue with the film is that it’s primarily a recovery movie. Recovery movies typically feature unlikable characters in the lead… no one rides in to sobriety on a white horse, rock bottom is called rock bottom because it sucks. People at that point in their lives aren’t the most admirable bunch, and Washington’s Whitaker is no exception. It won’t take audiences long before they begin to question whether or not they should be rooting for this guy – frankly they may not even make it out of the first scene. That’s par for the course in these sort of movies. What isn’t necessarily par for the course are some of the maddeningly unreliable decisions the character makes. To a degree, that also comes with the territory… you can’t exactly rely on a drunk, and certainly it adds an element of unpredictability to the film. There were moments I was CERTAIN what would happen, and the movie chooses to eschew the stereotypical path. There’s a part of me that wants to commend that, but the truth is the results were extremely frustrating for me, especially the ending. Which I won’t spoil. But I will say that I know more than my share of people with these sort of issues, and there isn’t a one of them who would fly in the face of self-preservation like that. It’s just not the way they roll.
Still, “Flight” is a decent drama featuring one of Hollywood’s biggest stars in the type of role you won’t see him in often: a drunken druggie. That alone makes it worth checking out.