Flight (2012) stars Denzel Washington as William “Whip” Whitaker, the pilot of a doomed aircraft. The movie chronicles both his struggle with saving the plane and then later, saving himself from alcohol. Never was there a more appropriate time to start a review with, “It’s going to be a bumpy ride!”
Whip wakes up in his hotel room to the ideal morning: a naked woman and cocaine. Oh, and he’s also got some post-marital troubles, but that’s what the alcohol is for. Despite all the booze and coke in his system, Whitaker gets dressed and ready to fly, and so does his woman Katerina (Nadine Velazquez) who also happens to be a flight attendant on the very same flight.
At the airport, there’s torrential rain, booming thunder, and heavy winds. Could there be more perfect conditions for a drunk/high pilot to fly a plane loaded with 102 passengers? Despite the conditions (of the weather, as well as the pilot), Whip and the crew take off. Things don’t look too good as they ascend through storm clouds and turbulence that nearly shakes the jet to pieces, but everything manages to hold together until they’re safely out of the storm. Cue applause from the passengers.
Meanwhile, in what appears to be a different movie, a heroin addict named Nicole (Kelly Reilly) gets some particularly potent stuff from her dealer, and he warns her to only smoke it, not inject it. She gets back to her apartment and shoves her creepy landlord out the door, and then proceeds to shoot up anyway. Surprise, surprise, she overdoses.
Cut to smooth sailing up above the clouds, until something critical to the plane’s operation malfunctions, and the plane jolts downwards in an acrophobe’s worst nightmare. Falling at a rate of something like 10,000 feet per minute, Whitaker and his nervous co-pilot have to act fast to save the plane. They aren’t able to create enough drag to slow the plane down, so Whitaker decides to flip the plane upside down in order to stabilize it.
This feat of ingenuity manages to buy them enough time to find a safe landing spot in a rural area, and they roll back over to prepare to land. Not-so-fun fact: this was inspired by a real life plane crash, the crash of Alaska Airlines 261, where the pilots similarly lost control of the plane and attempted to fly it upside down to stabilize it. However, unlike in the film, both the pilots and the crew did not survive the crash.
With both engines scorched, Whitaker has to glide his plane to a safe landing. With a wing clipping the steeple of a church, he manages to make a somewhat rough landing in a nearby field. And even though he was braced for impact, the force of the landing is a bit too much, and he gets knocked out.
When he comes to, he’s hit with some hard news from an old friend of his: there were fatalities in the crash. But the good news is, his amazing feat saved almost everyone. His friend, Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood) leaves Whip to recover, and a few days later Whip is visited by another friend, Harling Mays (John Goodman) who brings him cigarettes and alcohol.
Whip accepts the cigarettes, but having had a change of heart, declines the alcohol. Later, after waking up to a thunderstorm, Whip decides to go into the stairwell to smoke. There, he fatefully meets Nicole, recovering from her heroin overdose, and the two bond over cigarettes.
Whip eventually gets discharged and seeks out Nicole. He defends her from her creepy landlord and the two start up a relationship soon after. However, even his newfound girlfriend and his brush with death cannot fully dispel his addictions. Throughout the film, Whip is tempted by alcohol again and again, and the rest of the movie is him sinking back into alcoholism and how it affects everything in his life—including the upcoming NTSB hearing about who or what is to blame for the plane crash.
The problem turns out to have been a mechanical failure, and while Whip’s drunkenness didn’t cause the crash, he’s looking at serious jail time if the truth comes out. His attorney (Don Cheadle) successfully gets all evidence of his blood alcohol level suppressed. Empty liquor bottles were found on the plane, but all Whip has to do is blame it on Katerina (who died in the crash) and stay sober until the hearing. Which is, of course, easier said than done.
The flight scenes are intense and action-packed, and really grab your attention right off the bat (that is, of course, if the opening nudity and drugs weren’t eye-catching enough). The whole crash sequence is a real nail-biter, and scary enough to make you think twice about getting on the next airplane.
Following these action scenes is a much calmer glide through a well-presented drama. It’s a drama that’s sometimes harsh and painful to watch, but in a good way. It’s Planespotting; two characters struggle with substance abuse and their road to recovery is a turbulent one. Whip tries to escape from his alcoholism, but time and again something drives him right back inside another nondescript bottle of booze. Given his heroic actions as a pilot, we want to root for Whip, but it becomes more and more difficult as he hurtles towards self-destruction like an unstoppable freight train. For Whip, it’s always two steps back, one line of coke forward.
Flight also has a religious undertone throughout the movie, with “undertone” being used lightly. For the most part, it fits in with the theme of the movie, but there are times where it seems the religious imagery was shoehorned into one scene or another. The plane crashing into a church is an obvious one, with the parishioners continuing to have mass near the plane wreckage for days and weeks afterwards.
Also, Whip’s co-pilot survives the crash, and his wife seems almost like a caricature of overzealous religious folk, because she can’t praise Jesus enough for this miracle. By which I mean, she constantly shouts “Praise Jesus!” so much it gets to be comical (and she’s only in one scene). Whether that was the intended effect remains unclear, but thankfully such scenes are kept to a minimum.
Flight was directed by Robert Zemeckis, not exactly cinema’s most subtle storyteller, and the script has plenty of predictable “addiction movie” clichés. But still, it manages to be an entertaining film the whole way through. Denzel Washington was nominated for an Oscar for this role, and he elevates the material quite a bit. It’s a great performance in a film that’s “merely” good.
The script itself (despite also being Oscar-nominated) has some questionable choices here and there, with some comedic moments that seem to clash with the overall tone of the movie. There’s a big scene in the final act that plays Whip’s alcoholism for comedy, which is only enhanced by John Goodman’s involvement in the proceedings. But it actually is a funny scene, so it still works. And even the most horrible, depressing, tragic film needs a little bit of comic relief.
Despite the prominent visual of the upside down plane seen in the ads and trailers, the plane crash is really only the prelude to a bigger story about addiction. While the pulse-pounding action comes and goes rather quickly, the drama that happens in the aftermath of the crash is still more than compelling enough to carry the rest of the film.