Flight only works because of Denzel Washington. The film’s message is plodding and hackneyed, its journey is predictable, and its resolution is something out of a screenwriting class at Alcoholics Anonymous. But it all takes part in a rather enjoyable movie because Denzel Washington, already considered a pillar amongst the screen acting community, gives a performance that is so unlike any that he’s given over the course of his career. Building a brilliant career based on performances settled totally in control, here he plays a man so very, very unaware of his lack of control if his own illness. It leads to something of a revelation for the already heralded actor. And a pretty good movie, too.
Washington plays Whip Whitaker, a skilled airline pilot who’s been flying for decades, and who’s also a devastating alcoholic. We meet him as he’s waking up in a hotel room, hungover from a night of debauchery, laying next to one of his flight attendants. They have a flight in an hour and a half. In order to snap back into flight mode, Whip does a quick line of cocaine after finishing one of his beers and he’s all but set. He shows up on the plane, looking ready as ever, sitting comfortably in his pilot’s seat while his co-pilot, Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty) eyes him strangely, sensing that something is up. Despite a harrowing storm and a take-off filled with rumbling turbulence, Whip guides them brilliantly up into clear skies.
Handing the easy part over to Ken, Whip partakes in several of the plane’s miniature vodka bottles before taking a nap in the cockpit. But then there’s a malfunction with the plane. Ken wakes up Whip to let him know, and the plane goes into a nosedive. The plane literally begins to fall apart in the air and it’s Whip, cool and calm, who gets the plane to crash land in a field behind a church. How so? He begins flying the plane upside down to stabilize it, and turns it quickly back up right before it hits the field. Out of the 102 people that were on the plane, only six of them died, and when Whip wakes up in the hospital later, he learns that he is being heralded as a hero for landing the broken plane.
Whip gets home from the hospital and empties all of his liquor bottles, swearing off of drinking, and hoping to stay in solitude in his father’s farm while the media swarm his Atlanta condo. His friend, Charlie (Bruce Greenwood), now a representative for the Pilot’s Union meets with him and introduces him to a lawyer named Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle), who’s in charge of handling any criminal charges against Whip. Startled, Whip asks what possible charges and Hugh tells him that a blood test revealed that he had a blood alcohol level almost double the legal limit, as well as traces of cocaine. What follows is a series of acts by Whip which are the epitome of defiance and denial about his drug and drinking habits.
From his celebrated work in Malcolm X and The Hurricane and even in films of lesser stature like Remember The Titans and John Q, Washington has always mastered the role of the guy who keeps his cool, even in extreme circumstances, which is basically what we witness in the film’s first twenty-five minutes. As the plane comes crashing down, it’s hard not to be impressed with Whip’s overall aura – he never thinks he’s not in control. And his defiance in the face of those questioning his state as a pilot (“No one else could have landed that plane!” he exclaims several times) is strong. It’s the journey that he takes after the crash where Washington brings something new to the fold: slow but necessary acceptance that he in fact has no control over his alcoholism. Further more, he has less control over his alcoholism than her does of a free-falling plane.
Denzel is sure to get some sure-fire Oscar heat for this performance, and he should. After his second win in 2001 for the brilliant work he did in Training Day, Washington began working in mostly commercial action films that did little to boost his reputation. Even the films in which he was very good in (I’ll include The Taking of Pelham 123 and Man On Fire on that list) were of very little consequence because he was seemingly do the same role over and over. For the first time in a very long while, Washington went in a bit of a different direction with Flight, while still imbuing Whip with the customary charm and unbreakable pride that always make his characters simultaneously feared and respected. This is certainly one of his greatest roles and greatest performances.
This is the first live action film that Back To The Future director Robert Zemeckis has made in a decade. That film? 2001’s Cast Away. So, based on that, I think we can all agree that Zemeckis is the go-to guy for great plane crash sequences. In this film, he rightly gives the reigns to Washington to (no pun intended) steer the film’s heart and story. The screenplay by John Gatins (of Real Steel and Coach Carter fame) balances dangerously along the line of effective addiction tale and a flat-out AA advertisement from a Bible salesman. But Zemeckis smartly keeps the attention on Whip and his own personal journey. I think it means a lot that this film never has Whip stand in front of a podium and declare himself an addict – because that’s a long way off for Whip. He has to accept himself first before he can expect anyone else to understand.
The film benefits from a couple of good supporting performances. One comes from the consistently great John Goodman as the Stones-listening drug dealer, Harling Mays, who never once doubts Whip’s ability to keep his wits while he’s on the substance. The other comes from Kelly Reilly as Nicole, a heroin addict who’s two steps away from doing porn to get a score. Nicole’s intersection with Whip and their eventual relationship is a bit contrived, but it’s important to show how Whip’s consumption can scare even the most experienced addicts. Reilly’s soft vulnerability is a great balance to Washington’s stern abrasiveness. I expect Flight to get Washington his sixth Oscar nomination (and maybe his third win), but if somehow the film gets a Best Picture nomination, I hope Washington is the one who gets to accept that award as well.
Directed by Robert Zemeckis