A film review by Craig J. Koban November 16, 2012

RANK:  #6


2012, R, 138 mins.

Whip: Denzel Washington / Hugh: Don Cheadle / Harling: John Goodman / Ken: Brian Geraghty / Charlie: Bruce Greenwood / Katerina: Nadine Velazquez

Directed by Robert Zemeckis / Written by John Gatins

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 itís 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 manís 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, itís usually the addict that refuses to recognize it.  

The 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 canít 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 ďwake himself up.Ē  As the two leave the room to travel to their work day we get a quick jolt of reality: heís an airline pilot and she is a stewardess and both are an hour or so away from flying to Atlanta. 

Whip boards his plane and partakes in what seems like an ordinary day on the job (despite the fact that heís 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 Whipís efforts he saves 100 of the 106 souls on-board and his heralded as a savoir. 

Thereís 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 Whipís 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.  



Not.  Good. 

No 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.  

Considering 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 Whipís 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; heís 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: heís 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. 

This 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 2000ís 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: itís his most modest budgeted film (a scant $31 million, peanuts by todayís standards) and Ė unlike the visual splendor of his last three CGI-heavy films Ė 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 Zemeckisí career, and I mean that in an oddly complimentary fashion. 

Zemeckis 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 come.  

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: heís 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 viewersí 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 heís 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 Iíve seen.  This is one of the most unforgettable films of 2012.

  H O M E