Movie review: Flight
A one-in-a-million pilot struggles with the demon of alcohol, but film is mostly a languid cruise
Posted: February 20, 2013
When it rains, don't (let it) pour. Washington's character saves some 100 passengers but struggles with alcoholism in his own life.
In the first scene of Flight, the first live-action feature master filmmaker Robert Zemeckis has made in more than a decade, Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) wakes up in a hotel room one morning.
He is in a bad state, having obviously partied way into the night with the naked girl sprawled out next to him on the bed. To rid him of his hangover, he takes more booze while on the phone to his ex-wife about alimony and in particular their son's need to pay for college. While he's at it, Whitaker snorts some cocaine as well, before putting on his clothes and making his way to the airport. He is a pilot.
But the plane he is about to fly has some serious problems, and once they are in the air on a very short flight from Orlando to Atlanta, they experience not only turbulence, but total hydraulic malfunction. By the time the plane goes into a full nosedive, Whitaker, who has calmed his nerves by imbibing copious amounts of vodka laced with orange juice, decides to turn the plane upside down - as a result, he saves the lives of almost everyone onboard.
The maneuver is labeled a miracle, and in subsequent simulations, using the best pilots around, nobody has the same rate of success in avoiding a catastrophic air crash. But the issue of his cocaine and alcohol use remains a problem, especially since four passengers and two members of crew died, even though nobody else could have done the job as well as he did.
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
With Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, Don Cheadle
This brief summary sounds fascinating, and there is rich potential here for a contemplation of the consequences of one's actions and the role of God in all this - the film often has characters whose faith seems to help them along the road to recovery, or at least it comforts them when faced with the unknown, or counterfactuals. However, Flight rather quickly and hopelessly descends into the story of one man faced with the choice of committing perjury by lying about himself and lying to himself by claiming he does not have a drinking problem, or facing up to his dire need of help and owning up to his potentially fatal mistake of being drunk and coked up while responsible for the lives of more than 100 people.
Whitaker is obviously living a lonely life. He hasn't had a close relationship with either his wife or his son in years, he gets drunk very often and lashes out at people who want to help him, and there is little hope of recovery on the horizon as he is clearly flying his own plane, seemingly in control of his life.
And while the film's presentation of Whitaker's rocky recovery and his refusal to see his faults clearly is very possibly an accurate depiction of the life of someone in his shoes, Flight never even heads in the direction of a Leaving Las Vegas or a Requiem for a Dream, films about the death spiral that usually results from substance abuse.
Instead, Flight first focuses on a parallel storyline - about a young girl Whitaker meets in the hospital who is addicted to heroin and who might offer him redemption - that all but disappears from the film by the third act. In the grand scheme of the narrative, her role is overemphasized at the beginning given how she just fizzles out of the film by the end. Whitaker's family would have been the obvious point of greatest impact, but Zemeckis - whose Back to the Future trilogy and Forrest Gump have long earned him a place in the record books - fails to utilize this element. There is a single scene of interaction between Whitaker, his ex-wife and their son, and it is very powerful, especially because we realize how strong the son has become as a result of not having lived with his father.
There is little reason for this film to be 137 minutes long. There are multiple instances of compelling cinema, such as the air disaster itself, Whitaker's decision one night at a hotel to drink the little bottle of gin or leave it in the minibar, and Melissa Leo's performance as National Transportation Safety Board investigator Ellen Block questioning Whitaker at the federal agency's hearing. Unfortunately, these scenes are rare, and the rest of the film simply dwells on this character who doesn't seem to have a conscience until the very end, when we expect him to become human again.
André Crous can be reached at