people who made “Flight” have done a courageous thing. With all the potential
revenue to be had from in-flight movie sales, they have made a movie that is
guaranteed to never be shown on an airplane.
Denzel Washington plays Capt. Whip Whitaker, a former Navy ace who now works as
an airline pilot. Despite drinking and substance abuse problems, he’s still an
ace in the sky, as demonstrated by the film’s terrific opening set piece. After
navigating some turbulence, he is jolted from his cockpit nap when a mechanical
malfunction hurtles the plane earthward. It’s grace-under-pressure time, and
Whip manages to successfully crash land and survive along with most of the crew
But lawyers and insurance companies are bearing down, and before long, media
hero Whip’s history of alcoholism begins to figure into the official
investigation of the accident.
The dilemma posed here is that Whip, although technically drunk, was able to
land the plane and save more than 100 lives despite a malfunction that had
nothing to do with him. And yet, he clearly poses a lethal safety risk in the
air. With the help of a trusted union rep (Bruce Greenwood) and a sharp lawyer
(Don Cheadle), can he – should he – lie his way out of the investigation and
Director Robert Zemeckis, working from a screenplay by John Gatins, has been
loitering in the creepy motion-capture vineyards for a long time: “Christmas
Carol” and “Beowulf” are not likely to rank high alongside his “Back to the
Future” films or “Forrest Gump” or “Cast Away.” Mixed bag though “Flight” is,
I’m glad he’s back with live-action drama.
“Flight” is about the courageousness of an individual who must work his way back
to a moral reckoning with himself. By casting Washington as the hero, Zemeckis
is already signaling that Whip will, in the end, be redeemed. The trick, as
always: making a foregone conclusion seem less than inevitable.
To accomplish this, Whip is loaded down with negatives: Besides his drinking
problem, his ex-wife (Garcelle Beauvais) and son (Justin Martin) despise him,
and he jeopardizes not only his own life but the lives of those who care for
him. Recuperating in the hospital, he meets Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a recovering
addict, and the romance that follows is sabotaged by his inability to face up to
who he is.
To Washington’s credit, he doesn’t turn his performance into one long wallow. He
has a tendency to keep his guard up even when he is playing characters for whom
it should be down. Not here. He brings some genuine pathos to his scenes, and
some hair-trigger panic as well. When he realizes that his drinking could set
him up for a very long stretch in prison, he’s beyond shocked: He’s mortified
(even though he pretends to be poised).
Still, for all the film’s purported somberness about substance abuse, there are
(unintentionally) disconcerting interludes in which John Goodman, as Whip’s
slap-happy dealer, strides onto the scene for comic relief. Why should we cheer
this pushy pusher?
Zemeckis and Gatins work in a religious angle that never quite coalesces. Whip’s
co-pilot (Brian Geraghty) is, for reasons not entirely clear, an evangelical
hard-liner; the plane crashes in a field of Pentecostal worshipers, clipping a
church spire. When it’s pointed out to Whip by his lawyer that the crash can be
called an “act of God,” he responds, “Whose God would do this?” It’s window
dressing for what, in every other respect, is a straightforward morality play
crossed with a pretty good nail-biter.
Movies like this have a way of bringing out the best in Denzel Washington, and
his performance here is finely tuned and multi-layered. In portraying Whip,
Washington draws on his past work as both a villain and a hero; there are times
when the charisma shines through and others when there's a great deal of
Zemeckis finds just the right tone there, but frequently lays it on in a
heavy-handed fashion that frustratingly keeps "Flight" from being a truly great
film. This includes a distractingly Scorsese-esque, painfully literal use of
rock songs to correspond with the action. (Goodman's character enters to the
familiar opening lines of the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil," for
And the uplifting coda needlessly spells out the hard-earned lessons that would
have been more powerful had they been implied. Still, for the most part,
"Flight" manages to achieve the tricky balance of functioning as a serious,
adult drama that's also crowd-pleasing.