The key is in the casting. If your main character, the marvelously named Whip Whitaker, wakes in a hotel room still drunk from the previous night with a scantily clad woman in tow, swigs a beer, snorts a few lines of coke, and then in the midst of a phone conversation with his ex-wife regarding negligent child support payments reveals he is, ahem, an airline pilot scheduled to shove off from Orlando to Atlanta in but a couple hours time, it can be a bit tough to get in his corner. Ah, but if you cast Denzel Washington as this churlish man then the two-time Oscar winner can ably employ his vast reservoir of talent to become sympathetic simply by not pandering. It’s quite a feat of actor strength.
To be sure, Flight, directed by Robert Zemeckis and written by John Gaitins, also pulls the necessary strings to get us on Whip’s side. Despite his condition, he skillfully pilots Flight 227 out of turbulence on lift-off and when – in a spectacularly filmed sequence – on descent the plane breaks down and he cleverly, unbelievably recovers from a dive from which no mere mortal should be able to recover. His union rep (Bruce Greenwood) calls it “a miracle.” Maybe it was, maybe it was just Whip’s quick wit. In the aftermath it becomes clear he managed the impossible. Simulations of the event confirm it. He, as his colorful pal who comes and goes as required by the plot (John Goodman) notes, is a hero. Then again, he’s a hero who was drunk and high while being heroic. Does this negate the heroism?
Initially, as Whip’s talented lawyer, Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle, mannered but ruthless) explains he can “kill” the toxicology report with a few swift strokes to prevent the Captain from landing in jail, this seems to be Flight’s focal point. But as it progresses, and Whip forms a relationship with a trying-to-recover drug addict Nicole (Kelly Reilly), it reveals itself to be a more standard story of an alcoholic’s fight with his inner demons – albeit with a brutally charismatic performance at its core.
Let’s be honest, Zemeckis has never been the subtlest filmmaker. He’s the guy who LITERALLY had Tom Hanks stand at a crossroads in Castaway and in Flight he sets a scene of Nicole shooting up heroine to The Velvet Underground’s Sweet Jane and has the plane crash occur in a field shared by a country church. The latter is meant to enhance the notion of the wreck being an act of God, a notion perpetuated by Lang when he files “act of God” as one of the official reasons of the jet going down. This intriguing idea, however, is essentially tabled for the remainder of the film aside for one painfully broad sequence involving Whip’s co-pilot and wife who reinforce the cinematic stereotype that all Christians are nuts.
Flight comes out swinging but then starts pulling its punches, content to adhere to the regulations of the standard addiction movie and see if Whip can admit he’s powerless over alcohol. Its conventions after that opening then are that much more of a testament to the outstanding work of its lead actor.
Kelly Reilly has a fairly substantial role and yet, in the end, her character is almost entirely superfluous. This is, in a manner of speaking, a one man show – Whip vs. Himself. He’s in the full throes of denial as much as addiction and it’s sort of remarkable, not to mention frightening, to see how well he functions in such a state, able to accomplish anything – even landing a decrepit commercial airliner that theoretically cannot be landed – aside from the one thing he most needs to accomplish.