Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
Written by: John Gatins (screenplay)
Starring: Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, Don Cheadle and John Goodman
Denzel Washington has an uncanny knack for throwing away his lines while still allowing them to register emotionally on his face. This tactic serves him quite well in Robert Zemeckis’ Flight because the character he portrays, the alcoholic airplane pilot Whip Whitaker, would be much too volcanic and ineffective if he was played in a straightforward way. In Washington’s hands, he transforms into a wounded maverick lying his way out of a situation he had no control over.
Unlike many of Zemeckis’ other movies, Flight avoids many opportunities for standard character development and perseverance. When a standard Orlando-Atlanta flight turns into a nosedive at 30,000 feet because of mechanical malfunctions, Whitaker remarkably flies the plane upside down and stabilizes it for a safe landing. Of the 102 passengers on board, only six died when all of them should have.
Whitaker was drunk and on cocaine when he landed the plane. The biggest asset in John Gatins’ screenplay is that it avoids the media circus that occupies most other disaster movie narratives by having him hide out in his father’s old house outside the city. He’s joined by Nicole (Kelly Reilly) a recovering heroin addict he met in a stairwell in the hospital.
The conversation they have with a cancer patient while smoking on those stairs is the movie’s best scene because Zemeckis stops the frantic, intense pacing that preceded it and allows the characters room to talk. Despite Flight‘s hardened exterior of expletives and Rolling Stones songs, it rings true emotionally in the quieter scenes and doesn’t preach until the very end.
Whitaker’s alcoholism is treated very seriously, and though the pilot union’s lawyer (Don Cheadle) attempts to render the toxicology report invalid, the six deaths haunt him, especially the loss of a flight attendant he was unofficially dating. That would’ve been enough without the grand moralizing at the end, though the script takes several other risks in portraying how drug use “stabilizes” him. John Goodman sadly only appears in two brief scenes as his friend and supplier, but he electrifies the screen and manages the difficult task of stealing scenes from Washington.
For the most part, though, the movie belongs to him. His performance is fantastic precisely because it stands between the movie becoming a sermon and a melodrama and prevents it from becoming both. Zemeckis makes the airplane crash thrilling by editing shots of the frantic passengers and crew cut with shots of Washington’s intense but focused communication with the airport dispatch and crew. It is a larger illustration of how and why the movie works: Zemeckis generates intense scenarios and then plays them off of his star.
Flight loses a little steam toward the end as Whitaker’s alcoholism is played a little too frequently to advance the narrative into uninteresting and unnecessary directions. It avoids traditional crowd-pleasing in favor of a different form of it, but the ending scene between Whitaker and his son was the right way to end it. It illustrates his healing process without erasing his mistakes.