There’s a pretty good movie somewhere inside Flight, Robert Zemeckis’ first live action flick in about a dozen years. It features one of Denzel Washington’s finest performances, an amazing plane crash that may well be one of the best in cinema and a lot of scenes that break down how the incident happened and how Washington’s character’s condition may have played a role.
Yet Zemeckis, using an original screenplay by John Gatins, proves reluctant to zero in on the meat of the matter and winds up presenting a tale that wanders often. For all the good that comes out of the performances and the movie’s better sequences, Flight struggles to lift its wings above dull relationship drama and an entirely superfluous character.
Washington is William “Whip” Whitaker, an airline pilot with a substance abuse problem. We first meet Whip when he’s waking up in his hotel room and getting ready for a flight. This means taking a hit from a joint, drinking some booze and doing a line of coke. Whip heads on to his plane, introduces himself to his co-pilot (Brian Geraghty) and proceeds to fly through some turbulence.
Once things settle, Whip drinks some vodka and falls asleep. He is awoken with the plane in a steep dive, but he manages to remedy the situation with some heroic flying and crash-lands with minimal casualties. By all accounts, he should be a hero. One problem: he was, like, totally wasted. The subsequent investigation, featuring a slick lawyer (Don Cheadle), sends Whip through a crisis of conscience and there’s no telling how he’ll come out on the other side.
Now, that plot description sounds damn good if I do say so myself. The trouble is that Gatins’ screenplay chooses to introduce another character, Nicole Maggen (Kelly Reilly). We meet Nicole at roughly the same time as Whip. She has some trouble with drugs and is about to be kicked out of her apartment. She overdoses and happens to meet Whip at the hospital where the pilot is recovering. Sparks fly.
Flight is at its best when it focuses on the principles and issues of liability aboard the plane that day. It shines when it allows Washington to take the controls and steer it – and himself – into a moral plunge that can only be mended by John Goodman’s dodgy Harling Mays. It also has some cool procedural stuff that affects what happens after a crash and what sorts of questions there are that need answers.
But Zemeckis’ film hits turbulence when it draws Reilly’s Nicole into the fray, meagre accent and all, to engender some kind of abstract harmony with Whip. There’s little to work with and Washington seems to know it, saving his healthier efforts for scenes with Melissa Leo’s NTSB investigator or Cheadle’s lawyer. The focus on Nicole, with a few needless scenes at kick-off, threatens to detach Flight from any hope of being a decent flick.
The good news is that Flight is a noble and generally entertaining movie. Beyond Nicole’s pointless insertion, the picture zeroes in on some interesting questions about Whip’s accountability and the ethics that follow. If your pilot was drunk but saved your life through his resourcefulness in the cockpit, would his inebriation be an issue? Is he felonious or heroic? Both?
The decision to not play these issues off as straight melodrama helps Flight immensely. When Harling arrives with ridiculous swagger and a carton of smokes (among other goodies), it’s a look back at how Whip got in this position in the first place. It is the pilot’s past and alter-ego rolled into one pony-tailed greaser, a glimpse at what Whip is trying to forget and what he ironically needs to survive.
Washington does a tremendous job. Whip is not the most unswerving alcoholic ever put to film, but he does spiritedly wrestle with the right amount of self-importance and sentiment. He demonstrates tolerance to the elements, needing a prescription of cocaine to straighten up and fly right. In an amusing sequence toward the end of the flick, this is driven home in dizzying fashion.
There appears to be little doubt that no other pilot could’ve landed the plane. This is the movie’s great strength, as it presents an essential hero with an essential defect. But its weakness, an avoidable character with an avoidable flaw, is inconvenient and overturns much of what Flight has going for it. With a sharper eye and a keener sense of character, Zemeckis’ return to live action could’ve been splendid. As it is, it’s still a good film that comes up just short of the runway.