It’s been eight years and three movies since director Robert Zemeckis has made a movie that didn’t involve the cold lifeless eyes of his motion capture animated characters. His return to live action comes in the form of “Flight”, a dark character study on an alcoholic and drug abusing commercial airline pilot who manages to save many lives in a plane crash.
The story follows pilot William “Whip” Whitaker (Denzel Washington), who from the first scene is shown to have a serious problem. Prior to a 9 am flight, after having been drunk the night before, he starts the morning by drinking again and snorting some cocaine (just to even things out). This flight was supposed to be a routine and short trip, but something so goes wrong when they're cruising at 30,000 feet. The plane enters a downward freefall and it’s only through his calm and skillful handling of the extreme situation that he manages to minimize casualties and land the plane. He survives the crash and is thought to be a hero, but the blood tests show that prior to the flight he was heavily intoxicated. This creates a serious problem determining the responsibility behind the crash and whether or not it could have been avoided. It’s a very interesting dilemma when the hero who miraculously saved the lives of 96 out of 102 is facing serious prison time for manslaughter.
The entire movie follows the day to day experiences of Whip before, during, and after the flight, and Denzel Washington gives a stand out performance. He manages to make convincing all of the conflicting emotions of a very complicated man, even through a drug induced stupor. Denzel really carries the film with his strong performance, and it’s one of his best. His difficult journey and complexity warrants sympathy and support, even when he’s at his worst. Seeing the great things he’s capable of only makes his problems more devastating. The rest of the supporting cast is good as well, with Don Cheadle, John Goodman and especially Kelly Reilly as Nicole, a heroin addict that Whip befriends at the hospital. She adds a perspective to how bad addictions can get, and even though he’s helping her, he seems only to get worse.
There’s one sequence that deserves some mention here, and that’s the plane crash. It occurs relatively early on, but it takes the movie to a whole new level. Just about all of the sequence is shot from within the small corridors of the plane, staying cramped with the pilots and the passengers even when the entire airplane is flipped upside down in a desperate attempt to level it out. Much as it does in the story, the malfunction appears out of nowhere, and it’s within this one sequence that we get to see all of Whip’s best qualities on display. With the world spinning out of control around him, he maintains his level head and thinks on his feet, forcing the plane down in a way that seems miraculous at best and wholly improbable when described. It’s sold by how realistic it's played, and when you’re in there with him and watching as he fights against gravity and the velocity of the freefall, you feel just how heart pounding it really is. It’s such an intense and terrifying scene, that it may have been better served as the movie’s climax. There’s really nothing else that matches it. In a way, everything that occurs after this scene feels like a slow cool down. Granted, had this been the climax, then the movie would not have been the character study that it is.
That’s part of my problem with this movie. While the character study provides a lot of good character drama and strong performances from the actors, the struggles of an alcoholic feel familiar onscreen. What I found to be more interesting was the crash itself, and everything surrounding it. The questions of blame and responsibility, whether it should be on the manufacturers or the pilot’s negligence, and even the idea of whether or not he could have landed the plane in such a spectacular fashion had he not been drunk and high. All these are fascinating topics of interest, and it might have been nice to see more about that side of the story. Instead, it stays very close to the character, following the personal interactions of Whip, and less on the circumstances of the event that put his life in the public eye.
His constant drinking and substance abuse feels familiar and employs a lot of scenarios that have been done before, not to mention the less than subtle musical choices (the first song of the movie is "Alcohol" by the Barenaked Ladies). As with any movie where the focus is on overcoming a drug addiction, there’s a moral lesson for the character to learn. Here it’s no different, and not only does it tend to get a bit preachy, but it doesn’t necessarily ring true for the character.
“Flight” is an interesting drama with great acting and a seat gripping crash sequence, but in the end, the personal struggles of Whip’s alcoholism feel done before. That said, it’s still a very good movie with a lot to offer. Plus, it’s nice to see Zemeckis return to making live action again.