From the moment a fully naked women wakes up next to our anti-hero Whip Whitaker (played by Denzel Washington), and the two of them do a line of cocaine each, it was apparent that Flight was not going to be like Robert Zemeckis’ other films, not in it’s overt themes anyway. From there, Whitaker continues to drink while piloting a commercial trans-American flight. The ensuing drama of the crash scene is nothing short of exquisite. The intensity of the visuals, the torturesome screeching of the characters balanced against the forthright calmness of Whitaker, and the enthralling final impact, creates one the most impressively pant-moistening crash scene ever created on film (save perhaps The Knowing).
From then on, Flight embarks upon a character-driven story of substance abuse, crucially alcoholism. The toxicology reports on Whitaker reveal he was well over the legal limit for driving a car, let alone a passenger jet; yet he continues to drink and hide away from the snarling national press, who all want to know the whereabouts of the latest proclaimed American hero. Ably played by Don Cheadle, Whitaker’s assigned lawyer Hugh Lang successfully ‘buries’ the toxicology report, removing any chance of the film becoming a glorified courtroom drama in its Third Act. Whitaker only has to turn up to the Hearing sober, and he should be resolved of any blame. So what is it that fills the rest of the 140-minute running time? The answer is not too much.
His battle which alcohol is made manifest through his relationship with a recovering heroin addict, Nicole (Kelly Reily). At first, it is Whitaker that seems to be in control; allowing Nicole to live in his hideaway farmhouse, and even getting her a job. As he continues to speculate on his potential futures (incarcerated and estranged to his son is the most likely outcome if he continues the alcohol abuse), the ‘power-balance’ in the relationship tilts in Nicole’s direction. She attends AA meetings, and has to nurse Whitaker as he drinks himself slowly toward his inevitable fate. All the while, the investigation into the crash rumbles on, slowly clearing Whitaker of any wrongdoing. The climax of the film is a fitting conclusion, if despite being slightly cheesy.
The problem with Flight lies in its rather tumultuous and confusing identity. It’s part Leaving Las Vegas, part A Few Good Men and part Alive. A Frankenstein of a film, which creates a rather conflicting oeuvre, that tantalises, but flatters to deceive. Washington is at his majestic best no doubt, but this is also somewhat of a disadvantage as he brings so much of his persona to the story, it often overshadows the whole rhetoric of the film itself. At times you felt as if he was in Oscar mode, rather than alcoholic pilot mode, and at those times, it is difficult to root for him against the raging alcoholism and substance abuse. The religious subtexts add very little, and John Goodman’s character, while providing much-needed comic relief, seems as if he was cut in from another film of an entirely different genre. However, James Badge Dale makes an impressive cameo as a God-fearing cancer patient, stealing the scene from Washington completely. Kelly Reily as Nicole is the star performer though – a tough call in a film with the brilliant Denzel Washington – but her subtlety, grace and almost ethereal performance would steal the show if it not were for the fact that Denzel is rarely off-screen. Flgiht remains the Oscar-winners film and is without doubt Washington’s finest ever performance.
Flight represents Zemeckis’ return to live action drama, and while it has little of the style of Forrest Gump, it retains much of the allegories of Americana (in fact, if it were not for the appearance of an iPhone 5, it could quite easily be mistaken for being set in the 1970s). Perhaps a little rushed for Oscar season, the editing of could have been better as it is too long for what is essentially an art-house film, with an amazingly choreographed plane crash tagged on at the beginning. Despite that, it is an enjoyable watch, and proves that Zemeckis, and Washington for that matter, still have a lot to give.