Denzel Washington owns the screen in Robert Zemeckis' Flight, a “sobering” portrait of alcoholism and the agonizing journey towards making that all-important first step towards recovery: Admitting there's a problem.
Airline pilot 'Whip' Whitaker has such a drinking problem. We first meet him downing beers and snorting cocaine the morning of a passenger flight to Georgia. A mechanical malfunction (a frequently alluded to “act of God”) causes the jet to nosedive into the much talked about crash sequence that whitens knuckles and stretches physics. Even though he's bombed on vodka and cocaine, Whip manages – in a gambit only an intoxicated man would dare attempt – to invert the plane and glide it upside-down in order to restabilize in time for a crash landing. For the time being, Whip is a hero for saving 96 of the 102 souls on board, but when toxicology reports emerge indicating his drunk condition at the time of the crash, he becomes the subject of a criminal negligence investigation that drives him even further to the bottle.
The film spends more time with its feet on the ground than its title suggests. Indeed, it might seem an unavoidable weakness of John Gatins' script that it's impossible to follow up the mile-high tension of that first act set piece, but the remaining two hours are still fairly riveting – if somewhat uneven – for their magnifying examination of character. Not feeling the need to concentrate on rising plot action in succinct narrative-driven fashion, Gatins is liberated to explore the character of Whip (which may be informed by the screenwriter's own past struggles with alcoholism) in more thorough detail.
This is where Whip begins his true nosedive, and where Denzel truly takes over the Flight. He offers up arguably the finest work of his career, evoking a tragic yet compelling figure whose arrogance and denial makes him as pitiable as he is detestable. Washington can easily persuade us to admonish Whip's selfishness and substance abuse, but the greater accomplishment is that he persuades us to root for the character nonetheless, hanging on in hope that he can eventually admit his alcohol dependence and embrace the help he so very badly needs.
Another prominent theme Flight dabbles in (sometimes quite on the nose) is trust in God and trust in one's own control over one's life. God may have caused that plane to go down, but Whip has no one to blame but himself for his substance abuse and the toll it has taken on his life and the relationships therein. It's a fascinating conversation returned to throughout the film.
Zemeckis, who's spent the last 12 years playing with motion-capture and CG animation, demonstrates that he hasn't lost his proficiency for live-action craftsmanship. Flight is photographed in an unfussy, utilitarian style by Don Burgess. While his and Zemeckis' story-focused aesthetic does deny the picture any kind of memorable visual signature, it does make it one of the year's most effectively shot films. Not to be outdone is editor Jeremiah O'Driscoll, who rises to the challenge of finding pace and rhythm in a screenplay that eschews conventional structure. Sure, the plane crash is a bravura sequence of which he should be proud, but it's his handling of dialogue and grasp of montage that needs to be really top notch, and it is.
*** out of ****