Director: Robert Zemeckis
Cast: Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood, John Goodman
MPAA Rating: (for drug and alcohol abuse, language, sexuality/nudity and an intense action sequence)
Running Time: 2:18
Release Date: 11/2/12
Review by Mark Dujsik | November 1, 2012
There is nothing wrong with a movie showing ambiguity about a flawed protagonist, especially when it's a character as deeply flawed as the egotistical, heavy-drinking, drug-using pilot at the center of Flight. This is a man who either sobers up really quickly when the plane he's flying begins a sudden nosedive due to mechanical failure or really is only the best pilot he can be when he follows up a night of binge drinking with a line of cocaine to cure a hangover and exhaustion.
Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is not an easy man admire or particularly like, and it's far too obvious that screenwriter John Gatins and director Robert Zemeckis cannot reconcile that fact. At one moment, they treat him as a hero, only to end up viewing him with complete pity, which comes after picturing him as wholly reckless, and at one point, the movie seems to give up entirely on understanding or judging the man and simply gives into his self-destructive lifestyle and his unapologetic attitude toward it with a discomforting comic gusto. This is not an ambiguous portrait of a man; it's a schizophrenic one. Flight runs the gamut of its opinion of him to the point that we trust the movie even less than the man it concerns, and he's a pathological liar.
At the start of the movie, Whip is barely able to function after a string of flights without a day off and one particularly eventful night of drinking. With the final flight of his recent, elongated shift approaching, he snorts some cocaine to take off the edge.
His short flight home to Atlanta does not start well—a rain storm with punishing turbulence—and we immediately begin to question his ability to fly in the state he is in, thanks to the constant nagging of his co-pilot (Brian Geraghty) and Whip's decision to sneak a few bottles of liquor into his orange juice. After making it through the storm, he passes out, only to be startled out of his sleep when the plane encounters a mechanical failure and begins an uncontrollable and unstoppable nosedive.
The sequence is harrowing and the highlight of the movie, as Zemeckis moves back and forth between the panic in the fuselage and Whip's split-second decisions in the cockpit—most notably to turn the plane upside-down in order to control the descent, which causes even more complications for the passengers and flight attendants. The plane crashes, and Whip once again awakens to troubling news: Six people died, and there is an investigation underway to determine the cause of the crash.
Intercut with Whip's story is the sad life of Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a heroin addict who's being brought to the hospital for an overdose just as the plane flies over her apartment; she's as randomly forgotten about later in the movie as she is introduced. The two meet in the hospital after sneaking into a stairwell for a cigarette. Both have decided to go clean after their respective scares, but when Whip's union rep Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood) and Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle), a criminal attorney the union has hired, point out that there is medical report showing that the was drunk at the time of the crash, Whip falls off the wagon.
In the simplest terms, the movie is about choices, and since Whip seems unable to make a single good decision throughout the course of the story, the dramatic structure quickly becomes repetitive. The main reason for this is that Gatins' screenplay oddly overlooks the actual decision-making process. Eventually, the script entirely forgoes any actual change Whip experiences, skipping from one moment at rock bottom to the start of a process that will eventually lead him there again.
With the unending string of screw-ups, we're always waiting for the other shoe to drop, and the plot starts to feel like a sadistic act toward Whip. It's the only way to explain a scene in which he arrives at a hotel room after a period of sobriety only to be confronted with a series of almost cosmic revelations that ultimately lead him to a refrigerator full of liquor (The movie's haphazard teasing of the possibility of fate controlling events as a means of redemption is an afterthought—and a meaningless, shallow one at that).Washington does a serviceable job with a role that essentially amounts to portraying varying stages of drunkenness or, on occasion, narcotization; it's the actor's ability to remain sympathetic as the character follows a path of self-destruction that gives it a little depth (The screenplay offers only vague hints in Whip's failed marriage and attachment to his late father—hiding out at the family farm, watching home movies, fixing up dad's plane). Flight wallows so much in the character's ruin with such little variation and no sign on his part for any change that the movie's conclusion feels false. There's plenty wrong before that, though.
Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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