Director: Robert Zemeckis
Writer: John Gatins
Starring: Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, Don Cheadle, John Goodman, Melissa Leo
Length: 138 min.
Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) seeks and seizes gratification in life. Beautiful women, drinks aplenty, and the occasional pick-me-up snort of cocaine: Whip’s idea of living the indulgent life might feel satisfying in the moment, but – like watching Flight itself – the more one experiences, the less special it becomes.
Following a commercial airplane malfunction, Flight takes off as Captain Whip, an experienced pilot, is forced to crash land a plane under impossible circumstances. In the film’s most remarkable sequence, a calm and collected Whip performs a drastic aerial manoeuvre that saves nearly everyone on board. Praised as a hero for his valiant efforts, controversy arises when it’s revealed alcohol was in Whip’s system at the time.
While recovering in hospital, Whip has a chance encounter with another tormented soul, a recovering smack addict named Nicole (Kelly Reilly). Infatuated with one another, they begin an attempt to put their lives back together. But while Nicole resists the temptation of heroin, Whip recedes further into the drinking habits that landed him in trouble in the first place. As relationships buckle and Whip fails to control his addiction, Flight becomes an almost biblical parable about punishment, redemption and the toll of telling lies.
Contrary to an advertising campaign that deceivingly packages the film as a brisk legal drama, Flight is principally about alcoholism and atonement. Taking lengthy detours into Whip’s intoxication fixation and relationship problems, the dysfunctional character’s story arc often feels stagnant. Furthermore, with Whip’s lawyer (Don Cheadle) effortlessly shielding his client from legal complications, Whip’s subsequent input into the glacially-paced plane crash investigation is minimal, lessening the plot’s momentum and stakes.
While repetitive at times, visual displays of the addiction remain necessary for any addiction drama. Much like Steve McQueen’s Shame (2011), starring Michael Fassbender as a sex addict, Flight is preoccupied with exploring the often frustratingly cyclical nature of its central addiction. But whereas the greater variety of settings and situations involved in Brandon’s compulsion lend Shame‘s potentially static narrative some forward momentum, Whip’s alcoholism often grinds Flight to a halt. The incapacitating effects of alcohol on Whip, while powerfully conveyed by Washington, make it more difficult to really put ourselves inside his head. In this respect the film can’t quite overcome the challenges of dramatising this condition.
In a distinct change of tone from the director’s recent family-friendly animated films, Robert Zemeckis elicits superb real-life performances to bring to life the film’s lesser characters. John Goodman’s comedic cameo as Whip’s buddy and drug dealer Harling is a standout, providing the film with much-needed humour. James Badge Dale’s brief but compelling appearance as a gaunt cancer patient – sharing a stairwell conversion about survival and living with heavy burdens – vigilantly sets the stage for the hard truths Whip must eventually face.
On the other hand, the presence of and jarring cutaways to Whip’s uninteresting love interest, Nicole, contribute little in narrative or character terms other than to give Whip someone he can interact with. Despite having an addiction of her own, the character fails to transcend her token duty as the film’s addiction-conquering success story and doesn’t provide enough insight for Whip or the audience to justify the amount of screen time she occupies.
While Flight is not especially innovative, the strong performances, thrilling plane landing sequence, and Denzel Washington in the cockpit ensure the film is a safe, if slightly turbulent, trip.