"Flight" opens with the worst-case scenario of anyone that boards an airplane. At some 20,000 feet, a commercial airline goes into free-fall, nose-diving to crash in the Georgia countryside. The plane’s pilot, named Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington), somehow figures out a way of leveling the plane by turning it upside-down, then landing it with just a minimum of lives lost. Whitaker becomes an overnight hero; the problem is that he executed his historic rescue while under the influence of cocaine and alcohol.
Such is the harrowing, first half-hour of Robert Zemeckis’ new film, which follows Whitaker from his waking up in a Florida hotel room, with cocaine and empty miniature bottles of alcohol on the night table, through a rough takeoff through a thunderstorm, followed soon after by the mechanical failure of the plane. It proves to be the movie’s best part, which evolves into a cautionary tale of Whitaker’s denial of his alcoholism and airline officials’ willingness to cover it up. The crash, executed with maximum verisimilitude, is a sequence that you will likely remember, for better or worse, anytime you board an airplane. Like those who never took showers after seeing "Psycho," there may be those who won’t board a plane after seeing "Flight."
The incident brings to mind the historic landing in 2009 when a U.S. air pilot ( Capt. Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger) brought down a jet in the Hudson River off Manhattan. Like Sullenberger, Whitaker gets his 15-minutes of fame. The rub is that, unlike Sullenberger, his drug and alcohol toxicology report confirm that he was high and drunk, which would be cause for him to lose his pilot’s license and gain jail time despite his heroics. As it turns out, airline officials aren’t interested in this information being made public and convince Whitaker to take part in a cover-up. The toxicology reports will be ruled inadmissible when the case is reviewed by a Federal aviation agency; the only question is can Whitaker remain sober long enough not to blow his cover?
Along the way he begins a relationship with a heroin addict (Kelly Reilly) he meets while sneaking a cigarette in a hospital stairwell and escapes to a farm to recuperate, where his sobriety is short-lived. The film’s central portion follows his second nose-dive, which culminates with a blackly comic sequence in which Whitaker’s jovial dealer (John Goodman) is called in to pump up the pilot with drugs to get him through his hearing. In an odd way, the film’s ambivalence about drug use is startling: leaving the viewer to think that perhaps if Whitaker wasn’t so high, he never would have been able to land the plane. He’s told that when tests are done to recreate the crash, sober pilots aren’t able to duplicate Whitaker’s maneuvers. He not only can function when high, he also excels.
Washington also excels; cast against type, he’s smooth and convincing early on; a bit of a cowboy in the cockpit when dealing with an earnest, somewhat suspicious co-pilot, but charming the rest of crew with his easy-going manner. When the plane plummets, Washington kicks into overdrive while everyone else panics, making each second count with assured confidence and grace-under-pressure. His dynamism centers this remarkable, terrifying depiction of his world (literally) turned upside-down. Then when his substance abuse is discovered, Washington brings nuance to what easily could have been a one-note characterization. It’s a masterful portrayal of denial that is mitigated by the film’s easy climax, which offers a very Hollywood solution to the film’s central moral dilemma. It’s uplifting, but unconvincing: a Capra-esque answer to a film that resembles the kind of cynical dramas in which Billy Wilder excelled.
John Gatins’ script has a lumpy, forced edge - the subplot involving Reilly, the heroin addict, is shoehorned in to give Washington a romantic interest and someone off whom to play his addictions. The inclusion of his ex-wife and angry son also feel thrown in, though they give Washington the opportunity to display a rawer, meaner side. (Out of his comfort zone as a leading man, he finds his comfort zone as an actor.)
What works better is the cynical machinations of his union-appointed lawyer, played with cool assurance by Don Cheadle. He’s much like the unscrupulous management consultant he plays on the Showtime series "House of Lies," but without the nod and the wink. Equally strong is Goodman, whose jovial, no-nonsense drug dealer brings much-needed humor to this story of uplift.
"Flight" has a spiritual dimension that may play well in the multiplexes, but it rings hollow. Zemeckis, who brought us "Forrest Gump," makes smooth, homogenized entertainments ("Cast Away," "Back to the Future" are also films he’s directed). There’s nothing particularly wrong with his latest - it’s earnest, genuine and award-worthy. That, though, has more do with its compelling leading man than its take-away redemptive message. He lands the plane and saves his movie; well, almost saves his movie.