A film review by Craig J. Koban November 16, 2012
2012, R, 138 mins.
2012, R, 138 mins.
Whip: Denzel Washington /
Hugh: Don Cheadle / Harling: John Goodman /
Ken: Brian Geraghty /
Charlie: Bruce Greenwood /
Katerina: Nadine Velazquez
FLIGHT may superficially be about an airline pilot and how he uses his innate abilities and some daredevil intrepidness to save countless lives during a nearly catastrophic plane crash, but it’s more compellingly about the nature of dark impulses, self-destruction, addiction, and the unwavering aversion of the addict to acknowledge and deal with the latter.
It begins with
what has to be one of the most sensationally realized and frightening
action sequences of 2012 and then settles down into a bleak and
uncompromising journey into one man’s desolate soul and how he can
barely contain his own vicious patterns of behavior.
The film wisely acknowledges one of the central truths about
addiction: Even when everyone around an addict can see them dangerously spiraling
out of control, it’s usually the addict that refuses to recognize it.
film starts quietly enough. Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) has hit rock bottom: he is
divorced and is estranged from his wife and teenage son, both of whom can’t seem to stand his presence. Whip
retreats into booze and cocaine, which is usually supplied by
his only real friend, Harling Mays (played in a real firecracker performance by the robust and feisty John Goodman).
We Whip drunkenly awakening one morning in an Orlando hotel room
with what appears to be his girlfriend and fellow druggie, Katerina
(Nadine Velazquez) and both of them prepare for their day jobs.
Whip seems lethargic, so he takes a hit of cocaine to “wake
himself up.” As the two
leave the room to travel to their work day we get a quick jolt of reality:
he’s an airline pilot and she is a stewardess and both are an hour or so
away from flying to Atlanta.
boards his plane and partakes in what seems like an ordinary day on the
job (despite the fact that he’s not really sober).
After a shaky takeoff due to environmental factors, Whip tells his
crew and passengers that everything is fine (while he discretely puts
vodka into his orange juice bottle). He then decides to take a nap in the cockpit while
his co-pilot overseas the trip, but he is abruptly awoken by the sound of
the plane nose-diving towards the earth.
When all other options have been quickly explored, Whip then takes
it upon himself to completely invert the plane to bring it out of its
rapid descent and then inverts it back right side up to more safely crash
land it. The plane does land,
and due to Whip’s efforts he saves 100 of the 106 souls on-board and his
heralded as a savoir.
one problem, though: Despite the fact that Whip used superlative piloting
skills that very few on the planet could have duplicated, it is discovered
by his pilot union head (Bruce Greenwood) and the union lawyer (Don
Cheadle) that Whip’s blood alcohol level was a shocking .24 (three times
the legal limit to drive even a car) and that hospital toxicology reports
showed large amounts of cocaine in his system.
matter how courageous and resourceful Whip was in handling a life and death
situation that led to saving so many lives on the Atlanta-bound flight,
the fact of his inebriation could override any investigation into
mechanical failure of the plane (which is revealed to be the main cause
of the crash). Whip as a
public hero would be reduced to a crazed, wickedly irresponsible, and
dangerous criminal if word of his intoxication came out.
As the investigation looms, Whip recluses himself back to a
childhood home to avoid media scrutiny and recluses even further into
alcoholism. He is befriended,
of sorts, by another addict trying to go clean that he meets while at the
hospital (well played by Kelly Reilly), and she tries to help steer Whip
towards recovery, which becomes a nearly impossible task.
that the last film that FLIGHT screenwriter John Gatins wrote was the
preposterous REAL STEEL, I was not
fully prepared for how psychologically and morally complex Whip’s story
becomes as the film progresses. The
ethical quandary of his ordeal never has any easy answers and often poses
more thorny questions. Surely,
Whip is a hero, per se, in the sense that he used incalculable skill and
quick wits in a deadly situation to save 100 people in the midst of a
mechanical failure of the plane; sober or not, he did the near impossible.
Yet, at the same time, the fact that he had a morning breakfast of
coke and whiskey makes him a deeply irresponsible human being considering
his vocation; he’s a
criminal and committed criminal behavior.
Even more problematic is the issue of whether or not he could have
saved more lives if he were sober. Whip
becomes one of the most challenging and polarizing creations of any film
from the year: he’s neither a clear-cut and valiant hero nor is he a
black and white scoundrel with a bleak heart and Gatins' screenplay is
unflinching and uncompromising for never telling us what to precisely think.
also has to be the most nihilistic film to come from Robert Zemeckis, who
marks a triumphant return to live action after a 12-year hiatus (his last
one was 2000’s CASTAWAY) that saw him dive head-on into motion capture
animated fare like THE POLAR EXPRESS,
BEOWULF, and A
CHRISTMAS CAROL (two of which made my Ten Best Films list of their
respective years). FLIGHT
could not be any more different of a daring change of pace for the Oscar
winning director: it’s his most modest budgeted film (a scant $31
million, peanuts by today’s standards) and – unlike the visual splendor
of his last three CGI-heavy films – FLIGHT is a more
internalized drama that investigates the worst and best aspects of the
human condition as he invites us to witness Whip - for 138 unnerving minutes
- further succumb to his personal demons. This
is the most painful to endure films of all of Zemeckis’ career, and I
mean that in an oddly complimentary fashion.
is still a foremost technical craftsman in his field, and the aforementioned airline
crash is one of the most heart-stopping and horrifying sequences of the
movies, during which the director uses immersive and believable visual
effects as well as booming and ear piercing sound design to sell the whole
dreadful affair. More interestingly,
Zemeckis shows most of the action from within the tight and sickening
confines of the cockpit, during which we see Whip as a both a brave and
dangerous man of action when chaos has overcome his plane.
Having this virtuoso heart-pounder of a sequence at the front end
of the picture grabs breathless audience members from the get-go and then
allows for them to later collect themselves for the emotional drama to
Washington is certainly one of the most empowered actors of his generation, and he has given countless performances of greatness and variety. He has played dark characters before, but none so complex and conflicted as Whip. The emotional range that Washington has to relay is kind of staggering in the film: He has to present Whip as both good hearted and brave while showing him as a reckless, tortured, broken, and self-loathing human being that causes great harm to himself. Whip is not squeaky clean upon a cursory view: he’s a conceited addict, a chronic womanizer, a dreadful father and husband, and a man that seems willing to bury the truth under a mountain of lies. Yet, he did save 100 human lives because of his piloting skills. He strangely becomes both a sympatric figure because of his gallant acts on the plane and one to admonish because of the way he continues to methodically poison himself. Washington will be Oscar nomination bound for his work here.
Zemeckis and Washington also find a thankless way of generating nail-biting tension in the most throwaway of scenes (like one involving the briefly sober Whip being placed in a hotel room awaiting his hearing, during which a refrigerator humming nearby, filled with liquor, hauntingly tempts him). FLIGHT places great demands on viewers’ patience while also respecting them for having a dicey and convoluted character of contradictions hurled at them. The fact that FLIGHT is a technically proficient film from Zemeckis does not surprise me (the plane crash is as technically proficient as anything he’s conjured up); what does is how he and Washington create a more low-key, internalized, and harrowing journey into the heart of darkness of its main character and one of the most intimate and multifaceted portrayals of addiction and the addictive personality that I’ve seen. This is one of the most unforgettable films of 2012.