Captain Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is a long serving pilot who finds himself the star of media frenzy after his quick thinking and calm save 96 out of 102 passengers on a crashing airplane. The press want to know more about the elusive man they dub a hero. The problem is that behind the scenes Whitaker and a legal team led by Don Cheadle’s Hugh Lang are desperately trying to prove the crash occurred because of faulty parts, and not the extremely high levels of alcohol and cocaine consumed by the pilot that very morning.
Exactly how Whitaker saves so many lives is shown in the film’s first scenes. Scary, claustrophobic and visceral, Flight’s opening air disaster is uncomfortable viewing, deftly handled by director Robert Zemeckis in his first live-action film in over a decade. Despite this, Flight is not a disaster film, choosing to instead focus on the personal repercussions of the crash on Whitaker’s psyche. Though he first tries to curb his drinking, the guilt over the deaths and the forthcoming legal enquiry drag Whitaker back to his old ways. It’s a role that leads to one of Denzel Washington’s best performances in years, one which could have fallen into cliché in the hands of a lesser actor. His is a performance of nuance over histrionics which never fails to earn sympathies despite the character giving the audience plenty of reason to.
Whilst the crash investigation looms over him, Whitaker starts a relationship with Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a woman he meets in hospital. Like Whitaker, Nicole too struggles with addiction, having been hospitalised for a heroin overdose. Reilly shines through despite being buoyed down by the Hollywood costume cliché of ‘down on her luck girl = cleavage, bad tattoos and eyeliner.’ Like Washington, her eyes hint at past pains not discussed, and their yin and yang reactions to their escapes from death serve to highlight just how problematic Whitaker’s situation is. As Nicole tries to negotiate the path of sobriety, Whitaker stays up all night drinking himself into a stupor.
Like its central protagonist, Flight does have its faults. Melissa Leo is given nothing much to do at all, and scenes more than often veer into the trap of melodrama. Tonally, the film is as rocky as its eponymous voyage, with the ups and downs of Whitaker’s addictions all on show. One moment he’s waking up in the aftermath of the kind of alcohol-fuelled hotel room liaison aspiring rock stars dream of, the next he’s being rejected by the son he never sees. There are also incongruent seeming comedic moments, often provided by John Goodman’s Harling Mays, Whitaker’s bowling-shirt wearing drug dealer, who seems to wander in from a completely different, more light-hearted film.
But ultimately, if you can buy into the premise that a pilot with a blood alcohol level three times as high as the drink drive limit can achieve Whitaker’s feat, then these are only minor quibbles. Flight is a slow, brooding character study of a man struggling to come to terms with his reality and forced into analytical reflection of his actions for the first time in his life. With a stellar performance from Washington and solid direction from Zemeckis, Flight is an occasionally flawed, but ultimately winning piece of Hollywood drama.