The first act of flight depicts a plane crash in such vivid detail and intensity that I don’t think an in-flight movie deal is in the cards for the distributors. Director Robert Zemeckis, who isn’t a stranger to masterfully executed grand special effects sequences, creates a set piece that rivals his other plane crash from Cast Away.
The ads for the film make sure to plaster shots from this terrifying scene as much as possible while skimming over what Flight is really about: The redemption of a lost soul. It might be surprising for some audience members to walk into a movie by the director of the Back to the Future trilogy and find a stark and (no pun intended) sobering examination into the nature of addiction.
The way Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is revealed to be an airline pilot is so effective that I wish you’d walk into the movie not being spoiled about who the character is supposed to be. But unfortunately even if I didn’t spoil it here, it’s of course all over the ads, posters and loglines for the film.
The first time we see Whip, he wakes up in a hotel room infested with mounds of empty booze bottles and a sexy naked woman. After he is hassled on the phone by his ex-wife about paying for his estranged son’s tuition, he does a line of coke to level off the alcohol. Next shot, we see him on his way to work, as an airline pilot.
Yet this isn’t an ordinary flight for Whip. The plane gives up on him and he ends up having to try an extremely unorthodox method which saves almost everyone on board. He is immediately branded a hero, but also finds himself facing life in jail, because his toxicology report shows that he was high on alcohol and cocaine while flying.
What follows is the pathology of Whip’s struggles with addiction, handled in such a levelheaded way that’s surprising to see from a big budget studio drama. He is not treated as a clichéd tragic figure, or as a noble fighter against his personal demons, the way a lot of Hollywood films that deal with addiction tend to split towards.
Did alcohol ruin his life? In many ways, yes. He is constantly a mess and is torn apart from his family. It’s easy to judge him for this as an audience member. Yet Zemeckis and screenwriter John Gatins don’t let us off the hook that easy. He also lands that plane and saves almost a hundred people while highly intoxicated. “I was the only person who could land that plane”, Whip keeps repeating, and no one, not even the skeptical lawyer played by Don Cheadle, disagrees with him.
There is a theme surrounding faith enveloping Remeckis’ film, the way his Contact also did. The survivors are rescued by a church congregation in the middle of a baptism, which creates one of the most beautiful and eerie scenes in recent memory as we watch angelic looking people in white robes pull victims off of the wreckage.
The landing is called a miracle by many people of faith and a lot of praying takes place around it. Whip is indeed a skeptic and even though his journey is a somewhat spiritual one, it doesn’t become preachy or didactic. As for an expected moment of redemption, well, you’re going to have to witness the glory of that yourself.
Washington delivers a masterful performance that strips away his usual cocky persona and reveals a lot of vulnerability. He deserves at least an Oscar nomination. Ditto for Kelly Reilly, who portrays an addict who’s trying harder than Whip to stay on the right track. But there is an actor named James Badge Dale who appears in only one scene as a cancer patient. His total screen time is probably shorter than five minutes but his hypnotic performance captures the film’s themes in such an effortless fashion that I hope a Best Supporting Actor nod is on the way for him.
Flight is one of the best films of the year.