Flight takes off with the most harrowing sequence in popular cinema all year. At 35,000 feet, a commercial airliner carrying ninety-five passengers and five crewmembers falls out of the sky over rural Georgia. Plummeting headfirst at an escalating velocity, the cabin echoes with panicked cries. In the cockpit, the crew races to assess the problem before it’s too late. Like a flaming meteor, the aircraft barrels uncontrollably toward the ground.
The intensity is so palpable viewers will want to buckle up in their cozy theater chairs. In a last-gasp decision, the pilot takes manual control and pulls an audacious and unorthodox maneuver: He flips the enormous jet upside down in a desperate attempt to slow its runaway descent. The plane tranquilly soars completely inverted for several minutes, before gracefully rotating around, leveling off, and crash-landing miraculously in an open field.
Behind the wheel is Capt. William “Whip” Whitaker (Denzel Washington), a respected airline vet and former Navy pilot. Hours after the accident, as the injured man recuperates in a hospital bed, a media circus is already converging, ready to proclaim the next national hero. Although Whip’s clearly wary of the attention (fleeing to a secluded family farm as soon as he can), the spotlight, as any celebrity knows, tends to illuminate the truth, regardless of how well it’s hidden.
Directed by legendary filmmaker Robert Zemeckis (his first live-action film since Cast Away), Flight is an absorbingly taut and poignant excursion into one man’s tormented mental airspace. In the wake of stardom, Whip struggles to overcome his demons, now that they’ve unexpectedly come to the fore. After a toxicology report reveals both alcohol and drugs in Whip’s system at the time of the crash, he faces a different sort of plunge altogether—a full-on drunken bender.
But Whip’s not merely a drinker. He’s a raging alcoholic, as dependent on booze as oxygen. In spite of his inebriation, he’s still a fantastic pilot, based on an impossible mid-air recovery that saved dozens of lives. When it comes to criminal charges, however, will that even figure? Six passengers were killed. The people require a scapegoat. If he can sober up before a hearing with the NTSB, he might avoid culpability and prison time. If he can sober up, that is.
To Zemeckis and screenwriter John Gatins, the crash is more than just Whip’s jarring wake-up call. It’s a symbol—a beautiful conceit designed to weigh and clarify his negotiation of two completely different but equally unmanageable downward spirals.
As we’ll learn, Whip’s problems with substance abuse go back to his fractured marriage, where they destroyed his home-life. Rueful over past mistakes, Whip self-medicates exorbitantly, and Washington, in a performance worthy of nominations, plays the character with charismatic aplomb, in addition to staggering frailty and obstinate self-destructiveness. He’s killing himself. He’s just too cool to care.
To provide a reflective counterpart, there’s Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a Georgia-peaches accented beauty that narrowly escapes her own close call with heroin. Meeting over cigarettes in a hospital staircase, she and Whip become like AA sponsors that sleep together. Although she never emerges as a rounded character in her own right, Nicole’s desire to get clean has the contradictive effect of highlighting Whip’s unwillingness to acknowledge his own decaying existence.
While a union litigator (Don Cheadle) sagaciously endeavors to nullify the drug screening—partly by getting “An Act of God” accepted as a possible cause of the accident—Whip does his own existential soul searching.
Speaking of, there’s a strong spiritual undercurrent pervading the story. The first responders to the burning wreck are a church group mid-baptism, adorned in white robes. Shot with quiet, angelic serenity, that scene’s ethereal form ostensibly conveys Whip’s concussed disorientation, but further insinuates a saving divinity. Yet, the script has little, if anything, to say about religion besides “God’s ubiquity” and other platitudes. Flight is best when it stays grounded, assaying Whip on his arduous crawl from the abyss.
In Melancholia, a looming interplanetary disaster made an ingenious metaphor for depression. Similarly, Flight perceptively juxtaposes two catastrophic nose-dives, each handled by an individual who’s by turns in control and completely out of it. If Zemeckis’ gripping morality tale has its comedic moments (John Goodman’s far-out coke dealer is a hoot), it depicts alcoholism largely with an urgent sobriety and sepulchral gravitas.
In the tradition of The Lost Weekend or Leaving Las Vegas, Flight pinpoints exactly what addiction takes from us. It steals our loved ones, our lives, and most costly, our sense of identity and spiritual equilibrium. Addiction spins us upside down until we’re completely unrecognizable to ourselves, like an inverted commercial jet. This wise and troubling film argues that, on some level, they’re equally difficult to turn back around.