The advertising for Flight has highlighted the sexier elements, the star wattage of Denzel Washington and director Robert Zemeckis, and the thrills of the air disaster. What you get is a different matter. The first thirty minutes prepares you for one movie, and then Flight takes off in a different direction, a path that fails to capitalize on the potential of the subject matter.
Whip Whitaker (Washington) is one hell of a pilot. He miraculously lands a downed airplane, limiting the loss of life to six. He is also a hell of a drunk. Whip also happened to be drunk and high on cocaine at the time of the crash. As the airline investigation searches for the causes that lead to the crash, Whip and his team, longtime friend and union ally (Bruce Greenwood) and high-priced ethically sketchy defense lawyer (Don Cheadle) try and protect their own. The media is agog in hero worship with Whip, but they don’t know about what awaits in his blood test drawn at the scene of the crash. As Whip prepares for possible criminal charges, he meets a recovering addict Nicole (Kelly Reilly) and the two form a connection. He hides out at his father’s old estate, invites her along, and they struggle to stay clean and fly right. But temptation is too powerful a beast for Whip, and he will continue to make poor decisions.
It’s really a modern-age version of The Lost Weekend or The Days of Wine and Roses. It is an alcoholism story. We’re all familiar with them at this point in the movies. A part of me thinks addiction stories are some of the easiest ones to write; you take a flawed character, introduce the addiction, have them determined to get sober, and then provide temptation after temptation. And that’s kind of what Flight feels like. The compelling elements of the movie, notably the legal ramifications of the crash and the political maneuvering, get too often sidelined by a repetitious mélange of Whip getting drunk or thinking about getting drunk or trying not to get drunk. There are many ups and downs, but the cycle of addiction and abuse starts to grow weary, especially when the movie offers more interesting and unique story avenues worth exploring. The airplane sequence is a taut, horrifying, intense sequence. The legal wrangling resulting from it seems like the stuff of good drama. The airline is trying to limit its monetary damage, the lawyers are trying to cover for their clients including having the dead crew stripped from the fatality numbers, and all the while the investigation is getting closer to uncovering Whip’s secret. That’s the movie I wanted to see with Flight. The majority of what I got was a by-the-books addiction parable with some good actors. The movie seems to be going in too many different directions.
Zemeckis’ return to live-action is welcomed and long overdue, and it’s great seeing him direct real people in real environments again, even if the finished film is flawed. His interests seem more with the special effects-laden crash, a harrowing sequence for the ages. When it gets to the addict stuff, it seems like Zemeckis goes on autopilot himself, bowing to the strength of his charismatic star sucking everything into his orbit. The movie becomes an acting showcase for Washington’s abilities at the expense of a completely coherent plot or tone. At times the film seems cavalierly comic, particularly with John Goodman’s character that gets treated like an endearing figure. He’s Whip’s chief source of drugs and his chief enabler and his casual nature with hardcore drugs, and the film’s noncommittal stance, gives the movie a strange, unsettling quality. Then there’s the religious aspect that feels like it flew in from a whole other screenplay (I can’t tell whether the film is dismissive of religion or just flippant). Plus Zemeckis just can’t help himself when it comes to on-the-nose literal music selections (after Whip gets high due to his compatriots, the elevator plays the Muzak version of the Beatles’ “Some Help from My Friends.”). It’s at this point I’m so happy for Zemeckis to be back making live-action movies, I’m probably giving Flight an even bigger pass than it may deserve.
I’m not sure the Nicole character provides anything substantial to this movie, let alone the movie treating her as a co-lead for the first thirty minutes. In between our moments of watching Whip on the plane, we have scenes of Nicole going about her sad day. I’m wondering how in the world these storylines are going to connect and why we have to leave the drama of the plane for the mundane life of an addict eeking out a desperate life. These should not be parallel storylines; the audience interest is not divided here. Nobody is complaining about spending too much time with Whip and the plane crash. No one is saying, “I wish I could see that woman’s sad life some more.” Why did we even need to see Nicole before she meets Whip in the hospital? Were all of those early scenes just too essential to lose in a movie over two hours? Thematically, I can understand that Nicole presents a romantic possibility but also a reward for Whip if he stays clean and sober. Seeing him screw up this pseudo-relationship is another example to convey the self-destructive nature of Whip. I get that. But if this woman were really integral to the plot, she wouldn’t vanish for the entire final act.
It’s easy to see why actors are always attracted to addict roles. They’re usually showy parts that allow for many opportunities to bottom out. Rest assured, Washington (Safe House) is uniformly excellent, portraying a deeply flawed individual prone to grandiose self-delusion and justification for his behavior. We’re so used to seeing Washington play the calm, cool, collected men of dignity, men who seem preternaturally gifted at leading others. With Flight, he becomes far more vulnerable, a self-destructive character that pushes others away and betrays the trust and faith of others. He’s not fighting some larger external force; he’s battling his internal demons that continually lead him astray. He can be petty, mean, weak, delusional, and downright unlikable at turns. It’s a strong performance that anchors the film. The other actors all provide admirable backup duties, from Cheadle to Greenwood to a brief appearance from Melissa Leo (The Fighter) as an airline investigator. I want to single out James Badge Dale (HBO’s The Pacific) for the impression he makes with a part that amounts to one single scene in the movie. He plays a gaunt cancer patient sneaking away for a stairwell smoke (“Wouldn’t want to give my cancer cancer”), joined by Whip and Nicole. He’s so good with the gallows humor and surprisingly poignancy that I wanted the camera to just start following him.
I want to point out one quirk during my movie going experience with Flight. I was easily the youngest person in my theater by 20 years minimum. I don’t enjoy seeing movies with a predominantly elderly crowd because they do not follow the agreed-upon rules of movie decorum. They often engage in conversations or provide a running commentary. A man two rows behind me had his watch beep for a solid minute to inform him, and the theater, it was now seven o’clock. Either he didn’t hear it beeping (which defeats the purpose) or couldn’t figure out this new-fangled 1980s watch technology to turn it off (which also defeats the purpose). Anyway, what I really enjoyed then was the audible reactions when Flight’s beginning, its very opening images, was a pair of naked breasts. The first scene features Whip and flight attendant Katerina (My Name is Earl’s Nadine Velaquez) getting dressed after a wild night of booze, cocaine, and sex. Whip talks to his ex-wife on the phone, and in one ongoing camera shot, we watch Velaquez walk around completely naked. Then she leaves off screen… and comes back still completely naked. Now I mention this not to reconfirm my red-blooded heterosexuality but because it delighted me to no end to listen to the grumbling of the older audience members. And yeah, the nudity is fairly gratuitous but I’m happy Zemeckis was able to rankle my elder audience before the second second of film.
Flight is also unique in the sense that it may be the only film I know of to posit that drugs and alcohol could save lives. Will is drunk and high while flying, but he saves the day because of his impairment. Ordinarily in the event of a crash or a dive he would revert to his training; every pilot in a flight simulator recreating the events crashed and killed all passengers. Instead, Will goes by instinct, thinking outside the box, and saving the day. And what enables him to do this? Booze, sweet life-saving booze! He’s so calm and relaxed in the moment that he’s able to think straight and discover unorthodox solutions in limited time. Flight never makes this fact explicit but I think it would have made a more interesting film if this debate had been given more airtime. Yeah Whip was drunk, but not every drunk is impaired the same. I’m not excusing driving while intoxicated, but the movie presents a strange situation, fictional yes, where drugs and alcohol saved lives. Then in the end, and our lead is in trouble, what does it look like will save the day? Cocaine! Seriously, the white knight in the final act is the white powder.
I think audience might be in for a rude awakening while they sit through Flight, advertised as an airline thriller. It’s still a competent, occasionally compelling movie with strong acting from Washington and others, but are audiences really interested in another alcoholism drama even if it has Big Stars? The most frustrating part of Flight is that it has so much potential, so many intriguing storylines or angles to choose from, and it settles on the most mainstream one, the familiar arc of an alcoholic coming to terms with their addiction. How is that more dramatic than an airline crash or the later investigation and legal witch-hunt to find a culprit to blame? The movie prefers to focus on the minor rather than the major, following the familiar formula to the very end when our lead has to make a grave moral decision. It’s a character study but the character and his path are the familiar. All the stuff that makes Flight different (the airline disaster, the investigation, the politics of blame) is the stuff that gets relegated so we can watch Whip screw up time and again. There’s an interesting study on hero worship buried somewhere in all this. I enjoyed Flight more in the moment but it has been crumbling under further reflection and analysis. I’m dearly glad Zemeckis has stepped back to the land of the living but Flight has too much baggage to go anywhere new and exciting.
Nate’s Grade: B-