Denzel Washington plays one such pilot, named William â€œWhip Whitaker. Unfortunately, â€œsober is not quite in his dictionary, and after a night of alcohol, cocaine and sex, he takes the controls of a SouthJet airliner bound from Orlando to Atlanta. All of a sudden, the plane goes into a steep dive, and Whip is able to perform a risky manoeuver: rolling the plane upside down so it levels off, and turning it right side up again for a crash landing in a field, saving most of the souls on board.
In the hospital, Whip is greeted by his old friend Charlie (Greenwood), a pilot`s union representative. He also meets Nicole (Reilly), a desperate drug and alcohol addict who had just passed out from an overdose. Whip tries to avoid the media attention he has gained since landing the plane, and is informed by Charlie and attorney Hugh Lang (Cheadle) that he could face prison time based on a toxicology report that reveals he was intoxicated during the flight. Whip begins to spiral back into his old ways as those around him try to get him to pull himself back together in time for a National Transit Safety Board hearing.
Flight`s premise is intriguing in that a film would typically wrap up with its hero saving the day, but here, that`s just the jumping-off point and we get to examine what happens to said â€œhero after the day is saved. The film also marks director Robert Zemeckis` return to the land of the living, after a good ten years spent making dead-eyed CGI motion capture animation films. Zemeckis is well-remembered for such popular classics as the Back to the Future films, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Forrest Gump, so it`s good to see him back working in live action where he belongs.
Flight begins with a plane crash scene that is even more harrowing than the one Zemeckis put onscreen in Cast Away. This is the movie`s major set piece, and it`s brilliantly shot, imbued with an unsettling sense of familiarity in addition to danger and urgency. As the plane violently flips over and passengers tumble about in the cabin, you might just want to hang on to your armrests. You probably won`t see this as an in-flight movie soon, is all we`re saying.
However, Flight is not a disaster movie. It`s not an action movie, it`s not even a mystery thriller. It`s a good old-fashioned character study, a small, intimate film in a bigger movie`s clothes (or pilot uniform) though those clothes happen to fit it quite well. Everything hinges on Denzel Washington as Whip Whitaker, a character whose name is probably inspired by Sully Sullenberger, a pilot who successfully landed an airliner on the Hudson River. It`s safe to assume that that is the extent of the inspiration, as Whip is a hard-drinking, somewhat arrogant rogue, though Washington`s magnetism ensures we never look away and are always rooting for him. This turns out to be a compelling portrait of someone dealing with addiction, and the impact substance abuse can have on someone and those around him. The film is never too heavy-handed in its approach and doesn`t come off as a public service announcement. Washington too never overplays the part, and the result is well deserving of the Best Actor Oscar nomination he`s gained.
Washington is assisted by a fine supporting cast. Nicole appears to be in a much worse place in her life than Whip is, on the verge of being evicted from her apartment and implied to be prostituting herself to sustain her drug habit. Kelly Reilly subtly conveys the fragility of the character without turning her into a â€œdamsel in distress, and we become invested in her relationship with Whip. Bruce Greenwood is always dependable as the kind authority figure, and Don Cheadle is also good as the hardworking attorney, so we end up pulling for the two to get Whip straightened out. John Goodman very nearly steals the show as Whip`s easy-going drug dealer, a role that this reviewer is almost certain was written for Jeff Bridges.
The movie`s ending does stretch credibility and several pilots have decried the film, saying someone in Whip`s condition would be in no state to fly a plane, but that doesn`t seriously hurt the end product. The outcome is an intelligent, involving drama lifted by a well-written screenplay (earning writer John Gatins an Oscar nomination) and a brilliant turn by Denzel Washington.
SUMMARY: A mesmerising performance by Denzel Washington and a solid return to live-action movies for Robert Zemeckis make for a first-class flight.
RATING: 4 out of 5 STARS
Click to watch the featurettes below, trailer after the jump: