Just when you thought that Robert Zemeckis’ (Forrest Gump) return to live action cinema (after a decade of performance capture animated features) was going to be a disaster film, it takes a surprising turn following a terrifying and thrilling flight sequence, delving into a complex character study about an alcoholic pilot struggling to redeem himself to match those of his credited professional heroics.
An excellent Denzel Washington (a performance thoroughly deserving of his recent Oscar nomination and amongst his career best work) stars as Whip Whitaker, a Navy veteran and airline pilot who we first meet waking up from a big night with a young naked woman in his bed. A tense phone call reveals he has an ex-wife and a misguided son, and the state of the room suggests they are likely battling hangovers. Whip and the young woman (Nadine Velasquez) – revealed to be one of his flight attendants – have a flight in less than two hours and to kick the hangover he does a line of cocaine.
During the short flight between Orlando and Atlanta – on which we witness Whip indulge in further beverages – he encounters severe turbulence before the plane begins to seriously malfunction and fall apart. Taking advantage of unexpected adrenalin he, with the assistance of his co-pilot and one of his attendants, manages to invert the plane to stop a nosedive, and then maneuver the gliding airline into a crash land in an empty field. His actions are miraculous and though six people lose their lives, the plane’s faults should have resulted in the death of everyone on board. His heroics are soon challenged when hospital blood tests reveal his intoxication, and with answers sought after an investigation ensues seeking to uncover the cause of the accident. He gains support from his forgiving friend (Bruce Greenwood) and confident and capable attorney (Don Cheadle), while succumbing to his demons to a destructive extreme.
Whip is a figure in crisis, trapped within his own world of impulse and denial and self-deceit. He refuses to accept he is an alcoholic and even when he realizes that his drinking has brought his heroics under scrutiny he is unwilling (under pressure, unable) to stop. His binges are concerning but he needs to remain sober when in the spotlight of the media and lie under oath to ensure he escapes a sentence – and we find ourselves supporting this. That is a powerful feat of acting. Washington is so good – and he is so emotive with his face when he learns about the mounting evidence against him – that even when we hate what he does to himself, not to mention the risk he takes stepping into that plane that morning, we land on his side.
There are some issues with Flight that created a minor distraction from the compelling central narrative. Some of the music choices are ridiculous (‘Under The Bridge’ blaring when a character uses heroin and ‘Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone’ when Whip removes all of the alcohol from his place). There is also the glaring implausibility regarding Whip’s pilot license. If it was known that he was a heavy drinker and if he was even suspected of being an alcoholic, shouldn’t this matter have been thoroughly investigated? Whip’s romantic involvement with a recovering addict, Nicole (Kelly Reilly), is also pretty farfetched. The two meet while Whip is recovering from his injuries in hospital and apparently are attracted to one another after a single conversation in a stairwell. The best feature about this scene is a cameo by James Badge Dale. Otherwise it felt very unnatural. Nicole becomes his lover, but despite nursing him through hangovers and inviting him along to her AA meetings, she is unable to help him and ultimately the subplot doesn’t have a lot of bearing on anything.
As much fun as John Goodman is as Whip’s dealer and quick fix agent – and it is one of his wackiest creations – it feels like he has been plucked out of a completely different film. There is more than a semblance of Jeff Bridges’ ‘The Dude’ there. The Rolling Stones (‘Sympathy For The Devil’) unsubtly accompany his two entries, and though he is the bearer of some good humour, he is the fuel to the fire. When he visits Whip in hospital he brings with him a big bottle of vodka. Hardly the toxin Whip requires at that point.
Flight is a deceptively complex character study that lingers in your consciousness courtesy of John Gatins’ provocative screenplay, Washington’s compelling screen presence and devastating portrayal. The opening flight sequence is spectacularly intense and the ensuing investigation probes into challenging moral quandaries, and shatters the boundaries of our perception of the ‘flawed hero’. Despite the setbacks, the central protagonist is so strong and Washington is so mesmerizing, this is an easy recommendation, and similarly a welcome return and refreshing departure for Robert Zemeckis.
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22