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Flight (2012)
Movie Reviews

Flight (2012)

Not a breathtaking special effects extravaganza but a thoughtful, sincere, and highly engrossing character study – and, to a lesser but still noticeable extent, a morality play.

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After a near decade-long digression into the world of motion-capture animation, a filmmaking style I persist in believing is tragically underappreciated by audiences and critics alike, Robert Zemeckis returns to live action with Flight. Atypical of his directorial style, he delivers not a breathtaking special effects extravaganza but rather a thoughtful, sincere, and highly engrossing character study – and, to a lesser but still noticeable extent, a morality play. The central character is played by Denzel Washington, whose take on an alcoholic airline pilot is sure to get him noticed by both the Academy and the Hollywood Foreign Press. Indeed, his performance is powerful, daring, and intended to challenge the ethical standards people generally set for themselves but don’t necessarily always live by.

Washington plays Whip Whitaker, who’s introduced waking up in an Orlando hotel room with a flight attendant after a night of sex and heavy drinking. He has an airplane to pilot back to Atlanta, and yet he’s drunk out of his mind. He wakes himself up by snorting a line or two of cocaine provided by his friend and dealer, the crude Harling Mays (John Goodman). True of any long-term addict, this doesn’t over-stimulate him; rather, it brings him up to a neutral state of functionality. And so he gets on board and, without missing a beat, takes off through a rough patch of storm clouds and safely guides the plane to a smooth cruising altitude. As he addresses the passengers, sounding completely sober all the while, he stealthily mixes himself a cocktail of booze and orange juice. It would seem the crew is none the wiser. Then again, he does ask one of the flight attendants for an aspirin along with his cup of coffee.

A sudden mechanical malfunction causes the plane to dive steeply and uncontrollably. The copilot (Brian Geraghty) immediately begins to panic. Whip, on the other hand, keep his wits about him, even when all orthodox options for regaining control of the plane have been exhausted. He knows he’s losing altitude. He also knows that he doesn’t have enough time to land on a runway. His only remaining avenue is to literally roll the plane into an inversion and land in a field next to a church. This culminates into one of the most exciting and frightening plane-crash sequences of recent memory. Although special effects are relied upon, especially in a spectacular shot of the upside-down aircraft flying overhead at an alarmingly low elevation, it’s less about the spectacle and more about the psychological turmoil. The screams of the passengers are disturbing, to say the least.

It’s at this point that the film becomes its most thought provoking. Of the 102 people on board the plane, only six died in the crash. This would include Whip, whose injuries were relatively minor. After a brief hospital stay, he’s reunited with airline union representative Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood) and introduced to attorney Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle), who informs Whip that a toxicology screen was performed during his hospitalization. Naturally, alcohol and cocaine were found in his system. This means that Whip could be imprisoned on drug and manslaughter charges. At the same time, everyone, Whip most of all, is aware that he was able to bring the plane down with a minimal loss of life. This goes against the outcome of all subsequent simulations of the flight; not a single pilot was able to crash the plane without killing everyone on board.

Whip retreats to his dead father’s farm in an effort to avoid the inevitable media frenzy. Staying with him is Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a recovering heroin addict Whip met during his hospitalization. Although a romantic relationship of sorts is formed, it’s repeatedly tested by Whip’s alcoholism, which is made worse by the investigation of the crash. It’s revealed rather early on that alcohol led to the end of his marriage as well as his estrangement from his son, now an understandably angry teenager. Nicole is ready to turn her life around. We know this as early as her first scene, when she dials the number of her dealer; as she listens to the other end of the line ringing, she begs him to not pick up. Whip, on the other hand, is still battling his demons. As is the case with many addicts, hitting rock bottom may be what it takes to get him the help he needs.

What are we to make of the fact that he successfully landed a badly damaged plane while under the influence? Although uncommon, we know it’s possible to feed into your addictions yet remain a functional and contributing member of society. But does that make it right? His heroic actions notwithstanding, common sense tells us that Whip should have boarded that plane completely sober. What makes Flight such an absorbing film is that it convincingly shows how some situations aren’t as clear cut as we think they are. Some audiences are likely to interpret the final scenes as a didactic statement about Whip as a pilot, although I’m not convinced this is the case. I believe they make a statement about him as a whole person. Of all the things one can effectively do while under the influence, I’m hard pressed to say that being a good man is one of them.

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Paramount Pictures


About the Author: Chris Pandolfi