Denzel Washington plays a pilot who is both a hero and a destructive drunk in Flight, a solid addiction drama from director Robert Zemeckis.
Whip Whitaker (Washington) wakes up after a long night and a short sleep having shared assorted drugs, booze and a bed with flight attendant Katerina Marquez (Nadine Velarquez). After arguing with his ex-wife on the phone about money, he heads in to the airport for his first flight, a short trip from Florida to Atlanta. Drunk, high and supremely confident, he boards the flight and prepares for takeoff, just altered enough that co-pilot Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty) looks nervous but not enough that Evans or the other flight attendants, including veteran Margaret Thomason (Tamara Tunie), try to stop him from flying. On takeoff, there are rough skies and Whip climbs high and flies fast to find a pocket of good weather. Then, midflight, something goes wrong with the controls. The plane starts a dive. Whip, just barely up from a nap, takes the controls, rolls the plane onto its back to slow its dive and then glides it down to crash land it in a field (rather than in the house-filled suburb where the dive started).
When he wakes up, he’s in a hospital with a longtime buddy, Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood), hanging out in his room. Charlie is there from the pilot’s union. Investigators also come by to talk to him, informing him that most of the crew and passengers made it (six fatalities), and that his landing is viewed as kind of a miracle. But we sense from the beginning that there is more going on. Eventually, it comes out that blood drawn from Whip when he first got to the hospital shows he was drunk and high on cocaine. Charlie and lawyer Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle) attempt to protect Whip from possible criminal charges and from any attempts by the airline to blame him for the crash (which he says was entirely instrument failure).
What they can’t seem to do is protect Whip from himself. During this investigation, you can’t do is drink, Hugh tells Whip at one point. No matter what the situation or what people advise him, Whip can never manage more than a few days of sobriety, which are always followed by a spectacular bender. Whip knows his drinking is a problem but he can’t really admit it to anyone else or even, beyond a few scared-straight moments, to himself.
Meanwhile, a woman named Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a heroin addict, is making an earnest attempt at rehab. She meets Whip when they are both at the hospital and they form a strange, fragile friendship.
Flight is a good character study. Washington gives us a layered performance as a man who lets his demons over take his better qualities, particularly the coolness in a crisis that allows him to land the plane. We can see why people — Nicole, Katerina, Charlie, Whip’s drug dealer friend Harling (John Goodman) — like him even as we can also see all of his unlikeable qualities. He is self-destructive but also self-aware. Washington seems to enjoy giving us this portrait. He is always changing the focus on Whip’s character, so just when we think we’ve gotten to the selfish core, we see some other sliver of loneliness or just when we think he’s a hero, we see the caddish behavior.
And the supporting performances are strong as well. Cheadle, Goodman, Greenwood, Reilly — none of them are one note. It’s glib to write them all off as Oscar-bait, but these are exactly the kind of meaty roles that get attention during award season.
What keeps all this “good” from turning into “great” is a slickness that can’t help but make the story of messy people leading messy lives tidy. That is to say, the movie is a little Zemeckisy. The movie might present a man with flaws and layers and all that artsy stuff, but it still wants to give viewers a Hollywood ending. Denzel Washington gives a good performance but it never stops being major movie star Denzel Washington giving a very conventional kind of award-friendly performance.
Flight isn’t a bad movie, but it doesn’t ever give the actors or the story a chance to soar. B-
Rated R for drug and alcohol abuse, language, sexuality/nudity, and an intense action sequence. Directed by Robert Zemeckis and written by John Gatins, Flight is two hours and 18 minutes long and distributed by Paramount Pictures.