An uneasy movie, Flight is both engrossing and off-putting in equal measure. Thanks to Denzel Washington in both cases. Playing the hero pilot who saves a plane-load of people, he‘s also a dissipated addict who went on a bender the night before.
A morality play with an edge, Flight tests your nerves and your patience. Whip Whitaker is a cocky pilot who pulls a malfunctioning plane out of a dead-cert dive, rolling it and crash landing with only minimal loss of life. A media storm soon beckons as investigators zero in on what we already know – that Whip was drunk when he took off. But does that lessen his achievement? Is this hero really a villain? And can he sober up and save himself?
Unflinching in its depiction of the white-knuckle crash and Whitaker‘s own self-destruction, Flight is deliberately uncomfortable. Full-frontal female nudity is the film‘s first image and sets the stark tone. On a morning-after-the-night before Whitaker is in the company of a stewardess, both downing drink and drugs before the fateful flight.
Unrepentant and self-deluded, Whitaker is a complex character, confident in his flying skills and blind to his own demons. But meeting equally damaged Nicole (Britain‘s Kelly Reilly, Sherlock Holmes) in hospital offers them both salvation, sharing an isolated house. But while Nicole can kick her addictions, Whitaker can‘t kick his.
So Flight is a will-he-won‘t-he rollercoaster, with more downs than ups and that‘s its winning card. But it also makes Whitaker immensely slappable. A comedy cameo from John Goodman, a floral-shirted, Flash Harry fixer dealing in drugs and eff-words is deliberately coarse. As a symbol of Whitaker‘s depraved milieu, it‘s a telling invention, simultaneously providing the film‘s few laughs and making its main character harder to like.
It‘s a sharp turn to the serious for director Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, Polar Express, Beowulf, A Christmas Carol), and all the more surprising for that. Expect an easy, sheeny watch and you‘ll be turned off. But go with the flow and this is a compelling drama that deals honestly with issues of addiction and the moral ambiguities of what it means to be a good person.
Denzel Washington could act the Phone Book and make it soar. And in Flight he carries the movie on his outspread wings, a riveting performance of pig-headedness and vulnerability that makes the ending all the more affecting.
Overall, the movie is worth your time for the sheer spectacle of the flying sequences and the tailspin of Whitaker‘s personal dilemma. But it‘s a turbulent, uncomfortable experience. Flight is a long haul film in more ways than one.