In “Flight,” now available on DVD, two-time Academy Award winner Denzel Washington soars to another nomination and is a long shot for his third Oscar. A multi-layered performance shows all of the qualities which have made him one of the top film actors and adds another quality or two. Backed by a solid supporting cast, Washington gives us a portrait of a “hero” who both succeeds and fails greatly. In doing so, he turns what might have been a better-than-average thriller into an absorbing character study, full of tension and surprise, right up to the end.
Washington plays Capt. “Whip” Whitaker, ex-Navy jet jockey turned airline pilot. When we first meet him, he’s in bed with a flight attendant, Katerina (Nadine Velazquez), the morning after a night of sex and booze. He “recovers” for a morning flight from Orlando to Atlanta by snorting a couple of lines of coke. As he strides down the hotel corridor to the tune of Joe Cocker’s “I’m All Right,” we’re deeply aware that he’s anything but.
But he’s the image of cool and control behind his aviator glasses, even as he encounters rough weather on takeoff, turbulence so bad that it causes his co-pilot (Brian Geraghty) to call on God. Safely aloft, Whip doctors an orange juice container with a couple of mini-bottles of vodka, and he’s good to go. But an equipment failure sends the plane into an uncontrollable dive, threatening the 102 souls on board with a fiery death. Only Whip’s flipping the plane over slows them enough to crash land into a field. Six people die—including Katerina—but the rest survive.
In other words, the movie early on features a superbly filmed scene that would be the climax of the standard airplane thriller. But director Robert Zemeckis and screenwriter John Gatins are after a different kind of entertainment, one more interested in character and morality than high-speed thrills and chills. Whip discovers that, since he was legally drunk and high when he flew, he is liable for those six deaths and facing a possible lifetime in prison.
One friend, played with rollicking gusto by John Goodman, provides not only drugs but some comic relief. But another old buddy and fellow pilot turned union rep, Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood), takes Charlie’s situation seriously. The union hires a Chicago lawyer, played coolly by Don Cheadle, who promises to kill the damning toxicology report and pin all the blame on the aircraft, making Whip out to be the hero which he in part actually was.
Trouble is, after a brief respite, Whip returns to the bottle, big time. He takes up with another addict, Nicole (Kelly Reilly), though she is trying hard to kick her heroin habit and urges Whip to attend AA meetings with her. But Whip is not about to be saved by friends and lovers, or from himself. (A teasing religious motif recurs in the film, as when Whip clips off the steeple of a church during the landing.) He has alienated his ex-wife and his son, and he defies his lawyer and his union, choosing the bottle rather than facing the truth about his addiction and, in the bargain, his identity.
While we watch Whip’s impending personal disaster, Zemeckis and Gatins manage to keep us guessing, over and over, about what he’s going to do, rooting for him with the uneasy awareness that he may not be worth our sympathy. It’s a tricky path, and it takes an actor of Washington’s subtlety and appeal to walk it. His charm and rage alternately draw us in and repel us: we want him to admit his lack of control and take responsibility for his actions, knowing that he is helpless to do so until he admits his flaws and his guilt.
Rated “R” for nudity, language, and drug use, “Flight” is an artfully composed work. Zemeckis makes excellent use of not only current technology but, more importantly, of a veteran cast to set off his star. Some critics faulted the film for slowing down, rather than speeding up in conventional movie formula. But that is to value action over character, spectacle over theme. We have more than enough flicks that do that already. See this truly adult movie.