Emotionally Stark Flight a Soaring Chronicle of Addiction
Seasoned commercial airline pilot Captain Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) isn’t too worried about his return flight to Atlanta. Sure, he’s a little wasted, and hiding that from his rookie copilot Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty) and veteran flight attendant Margaret Thomason (Tamara Tunie) won’t be easy. But he manages to keep them fooled, and when the veteran pilot comes up with a novel way to get the plane through some especially rough weather, he’s all but certain the remainder of the journey should be boringly routine.
Not so fast. Just before they’re scheduled to land a catastrophic failure puts the plane in jeopardy. Working off instinct, Whitaker attempts a daring maneuver to regain control of the aircraft, in the process stopping a potentially catastrophic event in the skies above a residential Atlanta neighborhood. The plane does still crash, but it does so under control, and thanks to Whitaker’s actions, the loss of life is miraculously minuscule.
Oscar-winning auteur Robert Zemeckis’ (Back to the Future) return to live-action filmmaking Flight goes in some rather surprising directions. This isn’t some sort of conspiracy thriller, and isn’t about corporate malfeasance or anything even remotely sinister. Think of this as something of a modern variation on Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend. Instead of an acclaimed writer in the throes of addiction, here we have a seemingly heroic pilot whose battle with alcohol and drugs leads him to wonder if his quick-thinking acrobatics would still have been necessary had he begun the day sober. That’s the plot.
For anyone who has known or worked with those dealing with alcoholism and/or chemical addiction, John Gatins’ (Real Steel) hard-hitting script brings forth a brutally realized truth that’s impossible to ignore. The journey Whitaker takes, as extreme as his situation may be, is suitably unflinching, showing the highs and lows of alcohol abuse with striking authority. How the pilot deals with his situation is both frustrating and heartbreaking, everything leading to a forcefully tearful denouement that’s as fitting as it is emotionally compelling.
I have some small nitpicks. I get why actress Kelly Reilly’s character, a fellow addict named Nicole coming to her own fork in the moral road, is here, but I’m still not sure she’s a necessity. There are moments where it feels like the only reason the character exists is to verbalize some of Whitaker’s thoughts and actions for the audience, making melodramatically concrete things that do not require an explanation.
Then there is John Goodman. He appears three times, showing up as Whitaker’s best friend and confidant Harlan Mays. He is a ball of energy, an enthusiastic dynamo who brings a handful of laughs and an overabundance of electricity. But is also as if Goodman is in a completely different motion picture than everyone else in the cast. Harlan is an overtly theatrical creation of Gatins’ imagination, which is something of a shame considering how authentic almost every other aspect of the screenplay is.
But Washington’s multifaceted performance as a man on the edge of sanity is magnificent. There is nothing showy about anything he’s doing here, the two-time Academy Award-winner mining stunning interior territories with magnetic precision. Washington does not hold back and doesn’t try to soften the traits that make Whitaker a monster, as they are also the ones that helped him unleash skills that saved countless lives and made him a hero. This is one of the year’s best performances.
Zemeckis balances all aspects of this production with the same confident ease he brought to previous successes like Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Cast Away, Contact, Romancing the Stone and Used Cars. He may have toyed around with motion capture for a decade, but that doesn’t mean he has lost a step when it comes to dealing with actors or delivering indelible images that leap off the screen.
Flight isn’t an easy sit. It doesn’t offer up comforting answers to the many questions it raises or deal in exaggerated platitudes an audience might find simplistically comforting. Instead, Zemeckis asks the viewer to look inside themselves to analyze harsh truths, doing so in a manner that is poignantly heartfelt. The crashlanding Captain Whitaker engineers to save the lives of his plane’s passengers may be literal, but it is also figurative, and sometimes a person has to hit rock bottom if they’re going to do what is required to soar.
– Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: 3½ (out of 4)