Movie Review: Flight
Chances are that you are familiar with the details of US Airways flight 1549. Pilot Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger safely landed his plane on the Hudson River after a catastrophic mid-air collision with a flock of geese that rendered the plane inoperable. The incident was quickly dubbed “Miracle on the Hudson” by the press, and Sully was touted as a hero. What do you suppose would have happened if routine toxicology tests had revealed that Sully had alcohol in his system during the flight? Would the hero status be revoked, despite the fact that the pilot successfully avoided certain disaster?
That’s the initial premise behind Flight, director Robert Zemeckis’s triumphant return to live action. However, there is an entire separate storyline that ultimately drives the film, the flight in question merely gets the ball rolling. Denzel Washington stars as pilot Whip Whitaker. His free time is spent binge drinking, snorting lines and screwing anyone he can get his hands on. When he staggers onto a flight the morning after a typical night strung out and tweaking from his wake-up line of coke, the crew is noticeably disturbed, especially the poor soul (Brian Geraghty) who is unlucky enough to the be in the co-pilot seat. Whip is so hung over that he actually takes a snooze mid-flight, but when a mechanical failure causes the plane to take a nosedive, he effectively takes command of the situation and instigates an unthinkable flight maneuver that buys some time so the plane can land in a field.
Whip is instantly hailed a hero, but has little time to bask in the praise; his toxicology reports are a disaster, and because there were six fatalities, the lawsuits start flying. Naturally Whip’s condition during the flight becomes a central focus. He crumbles under the pressure of the impending investigation, and turns to the bottle to quell his fears. What unfolds during the rest of the movie is an unsettling and extremely convincing peek into the world of a true alcoholic. Whip catches some lucky breaks; his toxicology report is thrown out thanks to the work of his attorney (an excellent Don Cheadle), the co-pilot believes that the crash was an act of God and doesn’t testify and the crewmembers maintain loyalty. Despite all that, Whip can’t stay sober for the short period of time before the hearing concluding the investigation. A small army of enablers tries to ensure he makes it through the hearing, including his drug dealer (John Goodman), a union representative (Bruce Greenwood) and the attorney.
This may well be the best performance of Washington’s career, and it is one of the most realistic looks at the ugly side of alcoholism since Leaving Las Vegas. What I liked about this portrayal is that it doesn’t romanticize the addiction (I have always felt Leaving Las Vegas did, to some degree). Whip meets a heroin addict (Kelly Reilly) while he is in the hospital following the crash. The two bond, but she can’t even put up with his addiction. You know things are really bad when a heroin addict leaves your ass.
Zemeckis has not done a live action film since Cast Away (2000) and it’s nice to see his talent working full throttle again. The flight sequence is absolutely harrowing, but he handles the rest of the film deftly as well. The performances are excellent, particularly Reilly as the drug addled prostitute. If you find her intriguing at all, go watch her breakout performance in Eden Lake. You won’t be sorry.
I’m sure some people will feel a bit cheated by the bait and switch tactic of the film, but for those seeking a thoughtful drama, this will do the trick. Expect to see a few Oscar nominations from Flight. Washington is a shoo-in. It’s unfortunate that the film ends with a comfy Hallmark ending, but until then, it’s one of the years best.