Flight is a really good drama that goes in some really daring directions by modern mainstream Hollywood standards. That makes it even more frustrating when it bogs down or doesn’t follow through on some of them. If it hadn’t started off so promisingly, I might have been more forgiving.
Captain Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is an alcoholic, coked out, womanizing pilot, and he’s the awesomest pilot in the world. He handles a horrific plane crash with minimal casualties using his outside the box thinking and skill. That, of course, complicates the ensuing investigation, when it’s clear the alcohol and drugs did not impede his judgement, but still, you know, booze and coke.
What a fabulous scenario for drama. How do you defend a hero when he’s objectively sinned? Besides being edgy for a Hollywood movie, this is really dark for Robert Zemeckis. The movie opens with full frontal nudity (Nadine Velazquez, totally integral to the tone, if not to the plot) while Whip is boozing and snorting before the flight. Another addict, Nicole (Kelly Reilly), visits a porn set to score a fix, and considers performing in a scene. Porn! Zemeckis’ last R-rated movie was Used Cars and what was that for, language? In Flight, he covers all the taboos before the plane even takes off.
The flight scenes are really harrowing. First, some takeoff turbulence is a fine specimen of suspenseful cinema technique, and it’s reassuring to know that pilots like Whip have ways to compensate for uncontrollable weather conditions. But the crash is such an awesome set piece, the movie can dwell in any kind of aftermath drama for the next hour, riding on the thrill it executed. Whip performs some maneuvers that had to require visual effects, but they look frighteningly realistic, and so much of it is seen from inside the cockpit yet it’s mesmerizing.
The aftermath of the crash is fascinating too because we never want to have to see it, but it’s good to know the National Transportation Safety Board has a system to handle crashes. The airline’s lawyer (Don Cheadle) has to clean up the loose ends that Whip has created, and there are some beautiful scenes between Whip and the survivors, each making sense of this disaster in their own way, though many through faith, handled about as subtly as it was in Contact but that wasn’t my beef. That’s a reasonable theme to explore in a tragic circumstance.
Whip has the potential to be an unlikeable protagonist, although that really just means Washington condescending to authority and going dark for a few drunken tirades. He’s still smooth talking Denzel and he does that lip thing where you’re supposed to sympathize with his tortured contemplation. Jay Pharoah can totally do the Flight sketch on “SNL.”
After a while Flight becomes a back and forth, like a TV crime show. They’ve cleared Whip, but Whip keeps drinking so he gets in more trouble, and they’ve cleared this, but then they discover something else, but he’s connecting with Nicole (they meet in the hospital), but he’ll just be an enabler for her too. At a certain point, Whip keeps drinking and doing coke, trying to add moral ambiguity, but it’s superficial. He’s doing bad things but we know we’re still supposed to like him. It doesn’t really challenge us, or make us want him to get caught.
The film just goes on long after it’s used up all the goodwill earned in the first act and it starts to coast. It does cross the line in a way I respect, a moment right before Whip’s big hearing that I frankly can’t believe was written into a script and then filmed, but it still amounts to an AA movie. Just say no, believe in the 12 steps, trust a higher power. That’s all positive, but it feels safe. Flight started off as a thrillingly dangerous drama, and the 90 or so minutes of that are very much worth seeing. Let me know how you feel about the other 40 or so minutes, maybe I’m overreacting.