The trailer for Flight lead me to believe that this would be yet another notch on Denzel Washington’s career belt of Denzel Washington-y roles. My appraisal of the film was that it would be the heartwarming story of a reluctant hero pilot who miraculously landed a plane and the lives he touched, or some such nonsense. Through lack of interest or just sheer stupidity, I was pleasantly surprised that my predictions of the Robert Zemeckis film were so ridiculously far off.
The film follows airline pilot William “Whip” Whitaker, a name that only a Denzel Washington character could maintain without getting regularly beat up on as a child. Though Whip is a respected seasoned pilot in his community, he’s also kind of a mess. Right off of the bat we see him in bed with a naked woman (who we learn to be his stewardess), surrounded by empty beer bottles. He wakes up, takes a hit of a joint, a bump of cocaine and is off to work. Strap yourselves in indeed. Whip is drunk and high when the plane begins to experience mechanical failure, but still manages to land the plan, saving most of the passengers. Whip is hospitalized for a few days after the crash. During that time he connects with Nicole (Kelly Reilly), who is recovering from a heroin overdose. After leaving the hospital, he is called in by his friend and union rep Charlie (Bruce Greenwood), along with criminal attorney Hugh Long (Don Cheadle). They inform Whip that because of a failed toxicology report, he is facing prison time and possibly charges of manslaughter. Fearing for his future, Whip begins heavily drinking again and starts a relationship with Nicole. Nicole is trying to stay sober while Whip falls deeper into his alcoholism, isolating him from his colleagues and estranged family.
I wasn’t completely off-base when I thought that this would be another notch on Denzel Washington’s career belt, but it certainly is a well-deserved one. Plenty of films and television shows cover the threat of drug use. But I can’t think of a film in recent memory that has focused so squarely on alcoholism (The Master?). Not only is Whip an alcoholic, he’s a functioning alcoholic. The plane didn’t crash because Whip was drunk, he managed a completely competent landing given the circumstances, which is what’s scary. Witnessing Whip’s drunken descent is difficult to watch, particularly when he tries to reconnect with a son who wants absolutely nothing to do with him. What is also unsettling is the legal jujitsu that Cheadle performs as a criminal lawyer. It is fascinating seeing the backroom discussions of the airline as they contemplate the right PR move to make in regards to the crash and Whip’s future. Legal battles aside, Denzel obviously commands the focus of the film, with his portrayal of a man retreating from life’s challenges into a bottle. Flight is a poignant and often distressing film that doesn’t necessarily break any conventions but definitely surprises.
Final Grade: ★★★★ 4/5 Stars