Flight (United States, 2012)

November 03, 2012
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Flight Poster

Flight is about addiction. In particular, it's about the long spiral that comes between the period when a person begins imbibing too much and when he acknowledges that he no longer has control and needs help. This is valid dramatic material, but it's not the most light and life-affirming way to spend two hours. Flight isn't about addiction and recovery. It's about addiction, period. It shows how an otherwise decent person will do terrible things to get a drink. It illustrates the power of compulsion. And it displays the collateral damage that results from an alcoholic spiral.

By the time the movie starts, Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) has already lost much in his life, including his wife, who has divorced him, and his teenage son, who hates his guts. His best friend appears to be his drug dealer, Harling Mays (John Goodman). His girlfriend, Katerina (Nadine Velazquez), is a fellow addict with an equally colorful history of drug and alcohol abuse. They're talking about getting married. As the film progresses, Whip torpedoes a promising relationship with recovering abuser Nicole (Kelly Reilly), puts himself in danger of lifelong incarceration, and betrays friends and colleagues. He tries to quit on his own, with predictable results, and utters the mantra of every drinker: "I drink by choice. I can stop whenever I want." He walks out of an AA meeting. It's all very predictable; this story will be familiar to millions of viewers from their own lives.

The bottom-line question is, perhaps, whether audiences want to endure this two hour journey through despair and self-destruction. Flight is a well-made motion picture, but not a fun or entertaining one. The screenplay, by John Gatins, understands the power of addiction. There was a time when alcoholism was a hot button topic for serious motion pictures, especially in the indie realm, but that has fallen away somewhat in recent years. Now, more trendy addictions to various drugs and sex have taken its place.

Flight offers an interesting twist. Whip is the captain of a passenger jet. One day, on a trip from Florida to Atlanta through stormy weather, his plane suffers a mechanical failure and goes into an uncontrolled dive. Whip, whose blood-alcohol level is .24 (three times the legal limit for driving) and who snorted cocaine for breakfast, shows exceptional piloting skills to salvage a situation that few pilots would have survived. He loses only six people in the crash. The movie raises but does not pursue two fascinating questions. Had he been sober, might Whip have saved even more lives? Or, conversely, was it the alcohol-and-cocaine cocktail in his blood that enabled the risky, unconventional thinking that allowed him to save 100 people?

This is a different kind of movie than we have come to expect from director Robert Zemeckis. For the past decade, he has been laboring in the high-end animation field, producing such movies as The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol. His last live-action endeavor was 2000's Castaway; before that, he made mainstream entertainment like Back to the Future and Forrest Gump. Never before has Zemeckis gone into territory this uncompromisingly dark. One suspects the subject matter has great resonance with him. (In the movie industry, alcoholism is rampant, so he has almost certainly has come into contact with the disease in one form or another.)

The first half-hour contains some riveting material, reminding us that Zemeckis knows how to capture an audience's attention. The initial scene features actress Nadine Velazquez in her full-frontal glory as she saunters around a hotel room and slowly dresses. The next 20 minutes detail the doomed flight, giving us pause to consider the sobriety and competency of the men in the cockpit. But that material is all set-up. Whip's actions during the crisis give us an impression of him that Zemeckis and Washington meticulously deconstruct over the next 90-plus minutes.

Some might consider Flight to be an exercise in bait-and-switch, but that's more a marketing issue than one that should be laid at the feet of the filmmakers. It's true the movie abandons a host of intriguing issues (including an underdeveloped subplot about the blame game that goes on in the wake of a spectacular air disaster). There's also a too-obvious contrivance that puts temptation in Whip's path late in the film (involving a conveniently open hotel room door). This is a blow to Flight's verisimilitude. Yes, it could be argued that it's a minor thing, but it feels forced.

Movies like this have a way of bringing out the best in Denzel Washington, and his performance here is finely tuned and multi-layered. In portraying Whip, Washington draws on his past work as both a villain and a hero; there are times when the charisma shines through and others when there's a great deal of unsympathetic behavior. Co-stars Don Cheadle and Bruce Greenwood have little to do except stand back and watch Whip implode. John Goodman has a jolly time as a drug dealer who knows his stuff and doesn't think too much about morality. Kelly Reilly provides a counterpoint to Washington as an addict who has already hit bottom, admitted her failings, and is clambering toward recovery. In many ways, Reilly gets a more complete character arc than Washington, although she is absent for most of the movie's final third.

Can Flight succeed as mainstream entertainment? Addiction is omnipresent in today's society; those of us who don't suffer from it in one form or another are likely still impacted by it through others. The story has universal ramifications, but do movie audiences want to sit through something on the big screen they may have encountered in real life? Despite the spectacular plane crash and the in-the-moment heroism of the main character, this is not escapist fare. However, Flight is a well-made motion picture. The acting is top-notch, the writing is (with the previously noted exception) on-target, and the material packs a dramatic punch. It may not be frivolously engaging but it is compelling. That, in my view, makes it more deserving of an audience than about 75% of what's currently out there.

Flight (United States, 2012)

Director: Robert Zemeckis
Cast: Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, Bruce Greenwood, Don Cheadle, John Goodman, Melissa Leo, Nadine Velazquez
Screenplay: John Gatins
Cinematography: Don Burgess
Music: Alan Silvestri
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Run Time: 2:14
U.S. Release Date: 2012-11-02
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content, Nudity, Drugs)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1