An airline pilot who saves lives by skillfully crash-landing a malfunctioning passenger jet in the midst of a mechanical catastrophe can be considered a hero. The same pilot, on the same flight, operating with booze and coke in his system must be considered a criminal.
In the keenly felt, knuckle-biting drama Flight, Capt. Whip Whitaker is both. Played by Denzel Washington in one of the great performances of his commanding career, Whip is used to coasting on his tremendous talent and considerable charm, proud of his ability to “manage” his drinking and drugging. But during the investigation that follows the event, he engages in some desperate steering to postpone his own crash landing. How the man veers and buzzes, his cocky pride scrambling more and more wearily to outrun the truth, makes for a powerful and layered action thriller.
Flight opens with one of the most harrowing in-flight-disaster depictions of all time — a heart-pounder of a sequence made all the more effective by director Robert Zemeckis’ sophisticated decision to cram the camera into the claustrophobic cockpit along with Whip, his panicking younger co-pilot (Brian Geraghty), and a seasoned flight attendant (Tamara Tunie). In a movie attuned to the ravaging effects of both inner psychological turbulence and outer disturbances, that point of view — up close, contained — is crucial.
Afterward, for the man who was so cool in the air, calm skies and solid ground become the perfect-storm conditions that stir up his devils. As Whip recovers from the crash in which he too sustained serious injuries, he’s mythologized by the press and pursued by industry officials who are closing in on the truth of his secret addiction. It doesn’t take much for the “hero” pilot to revert to lying his butt off. He snows his old Navy buddy (Bruce Greenwood), a pilots’ union rep who wants to help Whip avoid criminal charges. He alienates the smooth lawyer (Don Cheadle, efficiently playing a fellow equally proud of his talents to twist the truth) hired to make incriminating evidence go away. He helps a sad-eyed heroin addict (Kelly Reilly) get on her feet when she hits rock bottom, only to disappoint her with his bulls—. (John Goodman, borrowing leftover Big Lebowski garments, has a small, colorful role as Whip’s No. 1 enabler and drug source.) Fiercely alive yet never showy about playing drunk, Washington inhabits the uncomfortable skin of Whip Whitaker with a kind of angry majesty.
AA, God, and prayer are invoked by various characters with various religious convictions in John Gatins’ unflinching screenplay, each time with a seriousness, modesty, and ease rare in so many movies about drunks and their journeys. On the passenger manifest for Captain Whitaker’s ill-fated plane, a flight attendant reports a head count of 102 souls on board. There’s a reason for that choice of word. Flight is spiritually generous. It’s also a hell of a ride. A