Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) wakes up in a room at the American Value Suites, a nude woman getting dressed beside the bed. Whip swigs a beer from his nightstand, takes a hit of pot, remarks that he should have eaten something, that he's light-headed, and then snorts a line of coke on the coffee table. One would hope from these actions that Whip at least has the day off, but nohe's an airline pilot for SouthJet Air and is only a couple hours away from his latest flight, Orlando to Atlanta. On board, he clings to a false facade of sobriety even as he sneaks three miniature vodkas into his orange juice and takes a quick shut-eye once they've reached altitude, with co-pilot Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty) and flight attendant Margaret Thomason (Tamara Tunie) looking on with part-amusement, part-scorn. The take-off is bumpy to say the leastthere is a bad storm Whip insists they fly through at an overextended speed in order to break above the cloudsbut nothing can prepare the crew and passengers for the sudden malfunctions that send the plane into a nosedive. Thinking quick, Whip inverts the plane to level out their descent and ultimately lands in the field beyond a pentecostal church. There are just six casualties, two of them crew, and Whip escapes with little more than a few cuts and bruises. He's immediately deemed a hero in the press even as pilot's union rep Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood) and attorney Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle) must begin to circumvent reports that Whip's blood alcohol level at the time of the crash was several times over the legal limit.
"Flight" is Robert Zemeckis's return to live-action filmmaking (his last was 2000's "Cast Away
") after three motion-capture animated features, 2004's "The Polar Express
," 2007's "Beowulf
" and 2009's "A Christmas Carol
," and for a long time, the film provocatively questions who truly was at fault in regards to the plane crash. What happened was most prominently due to mechanical issues and would have still happened whether or not Whip was under the influence. Furthermore, while Whip displayed a grave lack of responsibility in deciding to fly under such conditions, there is also no denying that it is because of his quick thinking and expertise as a pilot that saved nearly everyone onboard. It is tricky terrain to navigate, and "Flight" looks at the crash from all sides and viewpoints.
Alas, the subject of Whip Whitaker's guilt or innocence is only half of the story of "Flight," with screenwriter John Gatins (2011's "Real Steel
") also taking the opportunity to explore the character's addictions. A melodrama about the struggle for sobriety and the path toward finally taking responsibility for one's mistakes, the picture thankfully does not shy away from the uglier aspects of drugs and alcohol, when a person is so drunk they can't put two words together or so high that they cease being themselves. Recovering alcoholic and heroin addict Nicole (Kelly Reilly) has firsthand knowledge of Whip's maladies, and, while she is empathetic to his illness, she also knows that he isn't good for her to be around as she struggles to put her own life back together. They initially meet in the hospital stairwell, patients sneaking a quick smoke, and instantly they feel somehow linked. Whip vows to visit her when they're out of the hospitalshe naturally doesn't believe himand pretty soon she is staying with him at his family's old farmhouse, where his father once owned a crop-dusting company. Thus far, Whip has hidden himself from the press, and for good reason; when they finally catch up with him, it is moments after his fed-up ex-wife (Garcelle Beauvais) and teenage son (Justin Martin) have kicked him out of their house for showing up high. Details such as this don't exactly fly with the public persona of a heroic pilot who saved over one hundred lives.
It all boils down to Whip's all-important federal hearing with the NTSB, and it is in this third act that "Flight" hits some major turbulence. Vowing to remain sober for the days leading up to the hearing, Charlie and Hugh put him up in a nice hotel room with a minibar stocked with sodas and juices. So far, so good, until an incessant banging noise wakes Whip in the middle of the night and he discovers it to be the slightly ajar door to the unoccupied adjoining hotel room. Naturally, Whip is tempted by the rows upon rows of beer and booze in this room's fridgethis entire situation is contrived in the extremeand his inability to turn it down leads, first, to a painfully misguided scene played for icky laughs as Whip's supplier, Harling Mays (John Goodman), is called in to give him a cocaine pick-me-up the next morning, and second, to a showdown with NTSB's interrogating lawyer Ellen Block (Melissa Leo) that goes exactly as the viewer dreads it might. Becoming preachy, heavy-handed and patently predictable, the film fully transforms into the "Afterschool Special" it's been flirting with all along, trading tough complexity for strained, unrealistic patness. This downward slide continues until the very end, with no less than two maudlin monologues delivered by Whip and one visit with his son that rings resoundingly false. The boy has been given the school assignment to write about "The Most Fascinating Person I've Never Met," and he's chosen his dad as his subject. Yeah, right.
"Flight" has an excellent cast, with Denzel Washington's (2012's "Safe House
") dark and gritty turn as Whip Whitaker leading the way and Kelly Reilly managing to stun as the good-hearted, internally-afflicted Nicole. For an actress whose most prominent part has been as Watson's thankless wife in 2009's "Sherlock Holmes
" and 2011's "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows
," her fearless, bewitching work here only proves what some actual writing can do for an actor. Like Amy Ryan in 2007's "Gone Baby Gone
," few people will be familiar with Reilly before seeing "Flight," and the sheer force and intricacy of her touching performance will make them stand at attention. If Reilly doesn't earn an Oscar nomination, Academy members aren't doing their jobs. Also excellent: Tamara Tunie (TV's "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit") as flight attendant Margaret Thomason, torn between acknowledging that Whip saved her life and being equally honest about his negligence in piloting an aircraft he had no business being in control of.
Opening with a frightening, ultra-realistic depiction of an air disaster that will safely ensure it never shows up as in-flight entertainment, "Flight" captures one's attention from the very start, intriguingly paralleling Whip's experiences leading up to the crash with that of Nicole's fateful overdose that puts her life on a much-needed different course. From there, the picture is strongest when these two people are together, Washington and Reilly developing an affecting relationship based less on romance than on compassion. Nicole comes to realize, however, that her own sobriety is in danger as long as she stays with Whip. Once she exits, the film plummets, replacing authenticity with the creaky machinations of an uncouth, insipid "message movie." Toss in an unnecessary caricature or twoco-pilot Ken Evan's God-fearing wife, Vicky (Bethany Ann Lind), comes to mind, incessantly spouting off, "Praise Jesus!" when Whip visits them in the hospitaland a finale that goes so wrong it almost becomes painful to endure, and "Flight" proves to be both smug and too on-the-nose by a half.