Movie Review: Flight
By Matthew Huntley
November 13, 2012
Flight is being promoted as a high-concept thriller about a commercial airline pilot who miraculously lands a defective plane. He saves most of the passengers’ lives but is then investigated for being under the influence while on duty. This concept may drive the plot of the film, but it’s not what the film is about. It merely serves as a catalyst for a compelling character study about a man who must finally make a choice, one that he’s been putting off for years and has now reached the end of the line. During one of the film’s most powerful moments, it’s clear no matter what he decides, there will be no turning back. The remarkable thing about Flight is that it leaves open the possibility for any choice to be made and becomes so intense during an exchange of key close-ups that we, as viewers, feel the same pressure as the main character. Not many films have that power.
Denzel Washington, in another one of his signature “great Denzel Washington performances,” plays the troubled Whip Whitaker, the pilot in question. John Gatins’ screenplay makes no attempt to hide the fact Whip is a drunk and a drug user. The film opens with him naked in a bed with one of his flight attendants (Nadine Velazquez) after what’s clearly been another night of binge drinking. To give you an idea of Whip’s problem, he wakes up and washes his out mouth with beer and then offsets the effects of his hangover by snorting cocaine. Within a couple hours, he’s supposed to fly a plane from Miami to Atlanta.
In spite of his lifestyle, our impression of Whip isn’t simply black and white and we don’t automatically find him reprehensible. Yes, under no circumstances should anyone fly a plane with alcohol or other toxins in his system, but because we get the sense this is Whip’s normal state of mind and body, and if he’s lived this long (and flown this many planes) without any problems, he must be competent enough to still perform his job. That's proven near the end of the Atlanta flight when the plane malfunctions, causing two engines to catch on fire and the plane to nosedive. In a harrowing sequence, director Robert Zemeckis shoots from the point of view of the cockpit and we feel like we’re sitting right next to Whip and his co-pilot Ken (Brian Geraghty) as the plane begins to descend. We feel placed in the moment and it has a visceral effect on us.
Without giving away details, Whip finds a way to counter the nosedive and land the plane in an open field outside a church. He awakens in the hospital and only the representative of his pilots’ union, Charlie (Bruce Greenwood), is in the room with him. We’ve already learned Whip is divorced and observed the tension between him and his ex-wife after she calls asking for tuition money for their son.
Almost immediately after he comes to, members of the National Transportation Safety Board question Whip and the events of that day. Such scenes could have played out contrived and predictable, with Whip flying off the handle or bursting out crying, but there’s a quiet truth to them and Zemeckis allows them to play out more like real life than forced melodrama.