Like the convict bus crash in The Fugitive, the nuclear strike in Threads, the entire United 93 a great action/ disaster film starts with a big bang. And Robert Zemeckis blows things up real good in Flight, his first live action feature since Castaway, which also featured a plane crash.
Flight’s extended, excruciating plane failure and crash is a nerve jangling, stomach turning event that actually feels like certain death approaching. It’s visceral and upsetting and gives us a small taste of what people go through in plane crashes that appear in news headlines from time to time.
But the film’s greatest strength is Denzel Washington’s masterful performance as Whip, a man challenged by his own desires and selfishness. He’s up to his neck in good times and beginning to pay for them. We meet him in bed with a woman, surrounded by the detritus of a sleepless night of sex and booze. He snaps back to attention with a few hits of cocaine, puts on his uniform and heads to the airport.
He’s a commercial airline pilot and he’s about to go fly a couple hundred people from Miami to Atlanta. He projects confidence and capability as he takes to the controls, but his co-pilot notices he’s slightly off and possibly unwell. As they prepare for takeoff, the passengers settle into their seats for the short hop. A pocket of turbulence hits, then a cluster.
Turbulence isn’t a deal breaker on its own, but systems are breaking down. Whip keeps cool, handling e very fresh hurdle skillfully, despite his physical and mental condition. The plane turns, twirls, falls and rises and falls again. The passengers are tossed around the cabin like so many olives.
They’re terrorized, but Whip has a sassy half smile on his face, seemingly relishing this chance to play a cowboy hero. And then he’s flying the plane upside down.
That’s the first fifteen minutes or so. It’s as forceful a disaster scene as any. It’s especially horrific because the plane is diving and there is someone at the wheel who is drunk and high and sleepless.
Whip wakes up in hospital, with the pilots’ union president beside him and a flock of crash investigators on their way to question him. Whip’s blood was tested for toxins first thing; cocaine and alcohol were found in way over legal quantities. But they’re calling him a hero for landing the plane as skillfully as he did. He’s getting mixed messages and a sense of threat looms.
The investigations begin and Whip hardens and shuts down. Despite urgent warnings from his lawyer (Don Cheadle, recreating his character from The Guard, not a bad thing) Whip hits the booze hard, hiding out in his late father’s farm, which he first empties of alcohol, then refills. He develops a relationship with a heroin addict (Kelly Reilly) seeking freedom from her habit.
Flight is a morality tale, an odd duck at the movies. Whip is us at our worst, knowing how to live better and unwilling to do it, unwilling to consider the hundreds of people he carts around and the potential for their deaths. He landed safely, and is declared a hero but when details of his flight that day emerge all his layers are torn away. We see that heroism and fame are fleeting and lead to the other side of the coin pretty fast.
It’s tough to keep a think piece engaging after an opening like this. Whip’s weaknesses are grating after a while and his bad behavior and lies feel desperate; there’s a danger of losing the audience. The choice of Washington, an actor whose likability is off the charts, is a good one.
The force of his persona keeps us interested and we empathize despite the character. Zemeckis has given us a masterful opening and a character study in the same movie. It’s a surprising choice, but it works.
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Written by John Gatins
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Opens: November 2
MPAA: Rated R for drug and alcohol abuse, language, sexuality/nudity and an intense action sequence