FLIGHT is a solid high-concept drama for the most part, and is certainly the best thing Robert Zemeckis has done in a long time.
The story of William “Whip” Whitaker (Denzel Washington), a skilled airline pilot with a severe dependence on alcohol, cocaine and pills, who manages to save a crashing plane with minimal casualties despite being intoxicated. An extensive investigation into the crash begins, and Whip faces jail and the ruination of his career and heroic reputation if his condition during the flight comes to light.
Washington proves that he is still one of the most talented and versatile actors working in Hollywood today. He makes Whip haggard, self-destructive and tragic. We want to hate him for his selfishness, for what he’s doing to himself, and the chain-reaction effect on others his self-abuse has, but he always remains compelling and if not exactly sympathetic, then pitiable. There’s a particularly powerful scene when Whip explodes at a fellow addict he’s begun a relationship with, Nicole (Kelly Reilly) after she tries to confront him about his excessive drinking. Whip starts ranting angrily about how he “chooses to drink” despite what it’s doing to his life, and that his wife and son cut him off because he “chooses to drink”. This scene really hits home the fact that no matter how much help you offer addicts, they have to want to stop.
Reilly makes an impressively mature Hollywood debut as Nicole, a heroin addict trapped by her substance dependence. She makes for an interesting contrast with Whip, as she is determined to cut drugs out of her life after a bad overdose, whereas Washington’s character’s downward spiral is accelerated if anything by his near-death experience. Don Cheadle and Bruce Greenwood are both good as Whip’s lawyer Hugh Lang and friend from navy service Charlie – both becoming increasingly exasperated and angry at Whip’s refusal to change, even with the impending trial.
Pretty much every critic has applauded the film’s opening plane crash set piece, and I’ll concur that it is visually spectacular, relentlessly tense and emotion-fuelled. Some of the quieter scenes make more impact on a dramatic level, though. My favourite involves Whip, Nicole and a cheery cancer patient (James Badge Dale) smoking in a hospital stairwell contemplating life, death and God’s plan (or lack of). It’s an incredibly intimate, moving and darkly funny moment.
The rest of the film moves along nicely, with a good amount of impactful, often upsetting character beats as Whip confronts his demons and witnesses the wider impact of his actions balanced with the odd lighter moment (usually when John Goodman is in a scene).
I did have a few issues with Flight – the ending is idealised, bordering on sanctimonious which is at odds with the rest of the film which is relatively gritty and grounded. John Goodman’s character, a drug-dealing shady friend of Washington’s Whip, while providing a few laughs to a pretty bleak film, is a distracting presence, looking like he’s wandered in from the set of a Coen Brothers film. I was also disappointed with the lack of resolution with Reilly’s character Nicole, as she just leaves the story without much warning. In the end, it’s not her story, it’s Whip’s, but they’re both confronting (or avoiding) issues with substance addiction and I’d have liked to see whether she got clean with the help of her AA fellows, or whether her relapse was inevitable, like Whip.
Flight is a good film. It explores the vicious circle of substance addiction in an engrossing fashion, and Washington and Reilly give memorable performances under the sure and steady direction of Zemeckis. The film doesn’t pull punches in talking about an upsetting subject, but never surpasses the captivating first act of the plane crash and immediate aftermath.
If one major criticism can be levelled at Zemeckis and his screenwriter John Gatins it is their need to tie up a story too neatly, to push for a happy(ish) ending when in many cases real people with problems like Whip don’t get one. What is left of Whip’s life when you take the alcohol away? Does he even like being sober? But that’s Hollywood for you, and maybe this is just me being incredibly cynical. Still, give Flight a watch, it proves that Zemeckis back on form, and certainly deserves your attention. SSP