The most iconic performances come from actors who know how they are perceived by the general audience and who decide to play with those expectations. They take audiences on surprising journeys because those audiences are willing to go those places with those particular actors. Tom Hanks is one of those actors, and with FLIGHT, Denzel Washington is another – audiences have always liked Denzel as a performer, and while he’s pushed against type in many roles, he’s never played anyone quite like Whip Whitaker, a man so broken and pathetic that audiences might not be so eager to follow him down the rabbit hole if another actor had taken this role. Still, Denzel Washington doesn’t take audiences too far into the depths, and it’s remarkable that FLIGHT goes as far as it does. It’s a decidedly adult movie in a time where there are too few of them, and for that alone FLIGHT should be applauded.
Whip Whitaker is an addict in the purest sense – he drinks to excess, and then snorts a couple of lines of cocaine to come back up. He’s done this for so long that this is completely normal for him to go fly planes afterwards – in fact, it could be said that if he flew sober he might be under some kind of impairment. When we first see Whip, he’s in bed with a stewardess, yelling at his ex-wife on the phone about her need for more money from him (and, as it turns out, the money is for private school tuition for their son, and Whip scoffs, “Why does he need to go to private school anyway?” Class act, this Whip Whitaker). After downing a beer or two, snorting a line of coke, he’s off to the races, piloting passenger jets across the country.
Except this flight is different. There’s a massive failure with the aircraft, which forces Whip to use every bit of his ability to safely land the plane. He flips the plane over to level it out when it won’t respond, and then crash-lands it in a field. Only 6 people die in the ensuing chaos (one of them the stewardess he slept with earlier that day) and Whip instantly becomes a hero. But trouble comes in the form of a toxicology report, taken from Whip and the other crewmembers, and Whip’s freedom and livelihood are at stake if it’s revealed to the public that he was drunk and high when he flew the plane.
A lot of money is riding on Whip – if it’s mechanical failure, then the pilot’s union, headed by Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood), won’t suffer any bad repercussions from the crash, and he enlists attorney Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle) to do whatever it takes to get the toxicology report stricken. Meanwhile, Whip forms a relationship with fellow addict Nicole (Kelly Reilly), but she’s trying to get her life right, while Whip is not interested in any of it. He’s lived a life so full of lies and abuse that he doesn’t even know what’s true anymore.
Washington is phenomenal as Whip Whitaker. He’s always been great in so many roles, but Whitaker is different – there’s no big screaming moments of ACTING! In FLIGHT, and Denzel internalizes much of the pain and angst of the character. Kelly Reilly also impresses – as Nicole tries to pull herself out of the pit of addiction, Whip threatens to drag her down with him, and that conflict within her is compelling to watch. John Goodman, as Whip’s friend/dealer, livens up the proceedings with his humor, and Cheadle and Washington show us once again that together there really isn’t anything they can’t do acting-wise. Their scenes have great spark and life. James Badge Dale has a wonderful scene as a cancer patient at the hospital that Whip recovers from the crash at, and it’s unfortunate we didn’t see more of him in FLIGHT, but the scene has real impact and informs the rest of the movie.
As an exploration of addiction, the issues FLIGHT raises are not routine afterschool special lessons. There’s more than a hint in the movie that Whip’s addictions actually made him a better pilot that fateful day, but as he might be the best pilot in God’s blue sky, as a person he falls terribly short, with his relationships with his family and friends. He has a high-school age son he hardly ever sees, and an ex-wife who fights with him all the time, and in the shattered vestiges of his relationships through the years, Whip has managed to alienate anyone who gets close to him, and that’s just how he likes it.
This is an interesting movie for Robert Zemeckis to return to live-action with, and certainly unexpected. Judging from past movies, you would expect this to be some kind of special effects extravaganza at the very least, or another genre film. Zemeckis stages the plane crash with real intensity and passion, but that’s not what he’s going for as a whole with FLIGHT. It’s very much a character study, of a very flawed man coming to terms with himself and his addiction. The script by John Gatins sometimes skirts into cliché, especially during the ending, which critics will find hard to swallow but regular audiences will likely embrace. But it’s smart, heartfelt, and truthful for the vast majority of FLIGHT’s running time.
There’s also an evident spirituality to FLIGHT that at times feels a bit cloying – Whip seemingly disdains religion and faith, but aspects of it seem to pop up everywhere, and not in the most subtle of ways. Again, this is something most audiences will appreciate – FLIGHT tries to hide its optimism under a veneer of gloss and one coat of cynicism, but it’s all the more apparent as the movie goes on. Denzel Washington carefully gives us a portrait of a man untethered from other people and life in general, but this is only to set up the message. I doubt Washington or Zemeckis would allow FLIGHT to end on any kind of pessimistic note – it’s just not in this movie to go to the truly dark places.
Truth be told, the ending is predictable but it doesn’t undo the work of everyone in the movie. This isn’t the nihilism of a LEAVING LAS VEGAS – Zemeckis has always been a hopeful, optimistic filmmaker, even when he delved into dark comedy with movies like DEATH BECOMES HER, and FLIGHT doesn’t change that. But even when the movie ends on a crowd-pleasing note, Zemeckis, Gatins, and Washington give us a character that isn’t simply a clichéd addict, but one of complexity and internal struggle.