Flight, the latest film from ace director Robert Zemeckis, is about a flight and a plane crash but that’s just the beginning. The real story is in the aftermath as the pilot avoids confronting a central reality in his life, that he is an alcoholic.
Denzel Washington plays “Whip Whitaker,” a former Navy pilot who is a long-time commercial pilot on his tenth turnaround in three days. He’s just finished spending the night with one of the flight attendants in his crew, “Katerina Marquez” (Velazquez), and he is not at his best as he boards the aircraft. He’s never flown before with his young co-pilot “Ken Evans” (Geraghty), and it’s raining on takeoff from Tampa for a short flight to Atlanta.
The plane crashes but not before a spectacular effort by Whitaker to keep it in the air and to bring it down away from any populated areas. There were 102 people aboard and all but six survive the crash. Whitaker is taken to the hospital and awakens there with his old friend “Charlie Anderson” (Greenwood) sitting in his room. Charlie works for the pilot’s union now and is there to keep an eye on his old friend. Soon the NTSB’s ‘go team’ is questioning Whitaker. It’s clear he’s done something heroic and equally clear that there are problems. They took his blood (we don’t see this) without him being aware that it was taken.
Enter “Hugh Lang” (Cheadle), a lawyer from Chicago, brought into the matter by the union. He wants to save Whip from prison, which is where he’ll go if anyone finds out just how much he’d had to drink before he boarded that plane. Whip can’t recognize his own problems with alcohol.
The union and the airline want to blame the manufacturer, the manufacturer is looking to fix blame on the pilot. The NTSB doesn’t care who hangs, but only that someone gets punished. There are six dead bodies and somebody has to be accountable. The landing itself is nothing short of extraordinary, as attempts to duplicate it in simulators just won’t work. There will be a reckoning and it will take place at the hearing before the NTSB at which Whip will testify, where he will be questioned by “Ellen Block” (Leo).
The special effects involving the crash are excellently done. So is the interior photography during the ride down to the ground. The music for the film is perfectly chosen. John Goodman’s performance as “Harling Mays”, Whip’s friend and drug dealer, is outstanding, stealing every single scene in which he appears. Cheadle delivers his usual strong performance.
But this is another Denzel Washington vehicle. Much like Training Day, he elevates himself to another level, starkly and accurately displaying the life of someone wrestling with the demon of alcohol. The self-deception, deception of others and inability to gain self-control unless and until he will admit there is a problem are shown with astonishing accuracy and clarity. John Gatins’ writing shows real insight into the mind of the addict.
Flight is a tad long but that’s a very minor criticism. Those who themselves have a problem with alcohol may well find this material very uncomfortable. But it is a first-rate film and will undoubtedly generate some buzz come awards season.