Brace for impact. In director Robert Zemeckis’ new film, “Flight,” passengers’ worst fears are realized. An experienced pilot crash lands a plane, saving nearly everyone on board. The catch is, he was drunk at the time.
Denzel Washington plays “Whip” Whitaker, veteran commercial airline pilot, father and addict. In the opening scene, he wakes up in a hotel room littered with empty beer bottles (one of which has a swig left). A naked flight attendant at his side, Whip shares some cocaine and a joint before suiting up for their flight.
After takeoff, the plane viciously malfunctions as cucumber-cool Whip takes charge, rolls the aircraft upside down and belly-lands it into a field. He saves all but six lives and is hailed as a hero.
When pilot union rep and friend (Bruce Greenwood) informs Whip that his blood alcohol level was sky-high and tested positive for cocaine, Whip discovers he may be destined to spend the rest of his life in prison.
Enter hot-shot, fix-it attorney (Don Cheadle), who assures Whip that he can beat the rap if he can stay sober until after the investigative hearings. Seems that 10 pilots put in simulators, which recreated the crash, killed everyone on board. Problem is, Whip can’t quit.
Technical wizard Zemeckis (himself a pilot) is an ace at creating white-knuckle, visually terrifying airplane crashes. In “Cast Away,” the Fed-Ex ditching was so realistic (as a former flight attendant), I was brought to tears. In “Flight,” the director outdoes himself, filming most of the events leading up to the crash in the cockpit. Nice move. It’s where the action really takes place. And the incredible image of an upside down aircraft flying low is one of those indelible moments in filmmaking history. Stunning.
There are some soapy subplots going on in “Flight” which don’t compliment the substantiative direction the film takes. A heroin addict (Kelly Reilly) is saved from eviction by Whip and, in turn, she tries saving him. Not happening. John Goodman, as Whip’s pusher, provides some comic relief but only serves to shove Whip closer to annihilation.
Washington elevates a somewhat sorry script with his reined-in, yet immensely intense, portrayal of a man who cannot control the demons who reside within his soul. His eyes speak volumes about the war he’s waging every waking moment. It’s one of his best performances.
“Flight” is more about fleeing one’s persona than maneuvering an aircraft. In some respects, it also asks the question ... do pilots automatically earn our respect or do we have an overwhelming need to assign it?
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