Upon its release Flight was crashed by a slew of trailers that mis-sold the product. Rather than focusing on the compelling character drama the film is actually about, the trailers instead focused on the opening twenty minutes and the plane crash that sets off the chain of events in the story. What those trailers should have been paying closer attention to is Denzel Washington’s Oscar nominated performance and John Gatins’ Oscar nominated script, both of which are what make Flight, along with a welcome return to live action filmmaking for director Robert Zemeckis, a trip worth taking.
Waking one morning in an airport hotel room Captain Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) partakes in a little booze and cocaine before heading to his scheduled flight. Meanwhile, struggling junkie Nicole (Kelly Reilly) is having issues with her landlord and over-doses on heroin as a result. Back in the air Whip is taking a nap when the plane starts to fall out of the sky. Inverting the plane to prevent a full on nose-dive, Whip manages to crash land the with the minimal of fatalities.
Waking up in a hospital, Whip is informed that he saved the lives of over one hundred people, with the press outside hailing him as a hero. But when lawyer Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle) starts asking Whip questions it’s clear that his problems are far from over. Hitting the bottle hard, Whip learns he is subject to a hearing and that his toxicology report proves he was under the influence of drugs and alcohol when the plane went down, despite evidence that proves it was mechanical rather than human failure that caused the crash. Can Whip stay sober enough to get through the hearings and will his blossoming relationship with Nicole prove to be a help or hindrance to their addictions?
The first twenty minutes of Flight are breathtaking. The crash itself is every bit as harrowing and visceral as Saving Private Ryan’s beach landing and The Impossible’s tsunami wave survival. So terrifying is the moment Whip flips the plane it will have you thinking twice about taking your next jet-set holiday. But then Flight, like Robert Zemeckis’ other plane crash opening film Cast Away, takes it down a notch. The action is merely a catalyst for a slow-burn character dissection, a film that puts addiction under the microscope to similar levels as Trainspotting, Requiem For A Dream and Leaving Las Vegas.
Whip, unlike most addicts, seems to have a degree of control over his drinking. Immediately after the crash he gets clean, tells his friend and dealer, a brilliantly oafish John Goodman, that he doesn’t want it anymore. And it looks like he’s kicked it. The tragedy is, had it not been for the investigation into him and the pressure the media and his lawyer are putting him under, Whip would probably have made it. But, and this is the real kicker to the idea behind Flight, Whip is such an addict he can only function to the best of his abilities when drunk and high. He was able to land the plane because of those things, not in spite of them.
It’s a roller-coaster ride of emotions as you desperately root for Whip to make it, all the while Gatins’ script is subtlety pulling you along, much as Whip is to those around him, that in the end, despite it all, people will realise that he is the hero that he’s made out to be. He just isn’t the perfect hero that movies and society need him to be.
While her character is arguably superfluous to the plot Kelly Reilly is nonetheless a luminous presence in Whip, and the film’s, otherwise dark world. Her washed out skin and flame red hair a beacon of hope to Whip’s otherwise doomed existence. Reilly is brilliantly fragile, never feeling the need to display strength in the face of adversity as so many Hollywood leading ladies would. Cheadle is asked to do little more than play the straight-laced lawyer, never given the chance to shine as we know he can. James Badge Dale gives a fleeting but memorable turn as a cancer patient who instills a sense of religious hope in Whip when the two share a cigarette in the hospital.
But the film belongs to Washington. Rarely, if ever, does Denzel do a dud performance but this is up there with his best. Unlike say, Training Day, this is not the shouty Washington but the subdued one, the quiet yet massive screen presence so magnetic it’s a wonder that plane didn’t stick to him upon landing. His bear-like frame and often cigarette stained eyes go some way to illustrate Whip’s utter ambivalence to the world but his performance remains understated. Come the dénouement Washington manages to find a level of brutal honesty and resonance so achingly powerful Whip could run over a puppy in the street and you’d probably still forgive him for it.
Ignore the trailers, pay no attention to the ‘delayed’ notices, Flight is a heart wrenching film so riveting as to make you soar. Assume the brace position and prepare for a bumpy ride.