He survives, but the crash is not over for him yet. After striking us with a gut-chilling sequence at the start, Robert Zemeckis’ “Flight” switches its gear into a slow but compelling character drama about a long personal crash of a flawed man who has deceived himself with illusion of self-control. He tries to believe he can have his life and himself under control, but he only finds himself keeps lying to himself and others as plunging himself down to the bottom where he has not reached yet.
When we meet Whip Whitaker(Denzel Washington) for the first time, it is another difficult morning to begin for him. His hotel room, near the airport in Orlando, is strewn with bottles, and, still suffering from the hangover due to his wild last night with his co-worker, he stimulates his exhausted mind with cocaine. He soon regains his usual straight appearance when he walks out of his room – as a captain of a commercial airline ready for a morning flight assigned to him.
Cool and controlled on the surface, Whitaker does his job pretty well even though his body condition is legally not so suitable for operating a big flying vehicle with more than 100 people on board. When the plane leaves the ground, it suffers heavy turbulence, and Whitaker handles the circumstance with firm deftness unlike his nervous rookie co-pilot(Brian Geraghty). As soon as it is over, he drinks again when nobody sees him.
And then he and his co-workers face a very dangerous situation. Due to some malfunction, the plane suddenly rapidly plunges to the ground below, and the possibility of certain death is apparent to everyone in the plane. In such a panic moment, Whitaker does something not many sober pilots dare to do; by manually operating his plane, he does a perilous stunt flight as he turns it upside down, and, miraculously, most of the people in the plane survive although few die during the crash landing. Thanks to the convincing performances and realistic special effects on the screen, this terrific heart-stopping moment is so gripping and visceral that it eventually becomes a sort of minor but crucial supporting character hovering above the rest of the story.
While recovering at the hospital and being praised as a brave hero, Whitaker immediately becomes the focus of the media – and the federal investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. While how he succeeded remains an elusive mystery(all 10 simulated flights under the same condition failed), the investigation committee thoroughly investigates for finding the cause of the accident, and, not so surprisingly, Whitaker’s drinking problem attracts their attention due to his toxicology test at the hospital.
He can be jailed for operating the plane under influence if he is not careful about his drinking, but there is an interesting irony in his circumstance. Sure, he has enough skills and knowledge for saving his plane as a veteran pilot with long, impressive career, but could he have enforced such a risky and insane stunt like that if he had been sober? Yes, it goes without saying that he saved many people, but it cannot be denied that he had already endangered his passengers right from the beginning when he got on his plane.
Well aware of this professional negligence, Whitaker recedes into his family farmhouse from the media, and he tries to sort his messy life for pulling himself up. He removes alcohol from his house(one scene shows that there are many bottles amusingly placed here and there in the house). He also gets friendly with Nicole(Kelly Reilly), a young addict who comes across him through a coincidental encounter at the hospital, and there comes the possibility of the relationship between them as she moves into his home when there is nowhere else to go for her.
But, like any alcoholics struggling for control, he finds that it is not easy for him to stay away from alcohol, and it brings more troubles to him as the day for his testimony at the public hearing is approaching. He really needs help, but, like many high-functioning alcoholic, he keeps putting himself into denials and lies rather than admitting his problem. Nicole finds AA meeting is helpful for her sobriety and subsequent restart, but he does not like to be at AA meeting mainly because of the honesty surrounding him, which reminds him how much he has lied to himself for a long time.
John Gatin’s screenplay sometimes looks like a long crash course more or less determined for its alcoholic hero. The more he denies, the more he goes down through the circumstances beyond his control including the unlocked door to the hotel room next to his alcohol-free room – and he keeps disappointing the people around him who want to help him in one way or another.
The movie wisely does not try to explain the cause of his alcoholism while focusing on his alcoholic behaviors(well, he drinks because he drinks, doesn’t he?), and Denzel Washington certainly deserves Oscar nomination for his uncompromising performance. Using his cool, confident image as a mask for hiding the inner turmoil inside his character, Washington excels especially when his character tries to convince others that he just drinks heavily at times, and he never allows any excuse even when his character looks pretty unflattering and pathetic. Look at the scene when Whitaker impulsively visits his ex-wife and son who do not welcome him much, and you can have a pretty good idea about how lousy he was to them as a husband and as a father in the past.
Whitaker may be able to get away with his drinking problem as he keeps drinking, but there is always his conscience somewhere in his mind, and that is why the one important scene near the ending is as intense as the crash landing sequence in the beginning; this time, his life, career, and conscience are his passengers, and he comes to see that there are only two flight courses for him – and neither of them will be easy for him at all. Even in such a tense and burdensome moment, Washington does not resort to overacting while presenting us the façade barely under control; everyone in the room is looking at him, and Whitaker must hide what has been eating him inside from them if he wants to survive with his career remained intact officially.
The supporting performers surrounding Washington effectively function as the elements of the story which guide or drive or corner Washington’s character into that point. Brian Geraghty is a good counterpart to Washington’s steely attitude during the crash landing sequence, and Kelly Reilly brings warmth to the story as a fellow addict; she likes and cares about Whitaker, but there is a point where a recovering AA meeting member can no longer be with an alcoholic mired in self-denial.
On the opposite, Bruce Greenwood is a union representative trying to save his longtime friend’s career, and Don Cheadle is an efficient no-nonsense lawyer doing his job as paid; they are also frustrated about Whitaker’s drinking problem but they choose to ignore it as they do as much as they can for protecting his career. John Goodman steals the show as a flamboyant drug supplier who always comes handy to his client/friend as if he were a sort of devil ready to be summoned, and Melissa Leo sternly holds her single scene as the head of the investigation committee who will not accept any evasion from her witness.
The director Robert Zemeckis, who returns to feature film after more than 10 years(his last feature film was “Cast Away”(2000)), confirms to us through this movie that he has lost none of his skills as a feature film director even after having spent lots of time to his experiment with motion capture animation. The special effects are well used for its crashing impact to the story, and the story is handled well as a drama giving us some insights about addiction under his competent direction.
By the way, I heard some people complained that one certain line delivered around the ending is too much of a cliché, so I must say this clearly to you; I think there is no other line more honest than that familiar line, and, when you hear it in the movie, you will probably agree that it is exactly what should be uttered from him. After all, honesty is the first important recovering step for any addicts, isn’t it?