Robert Zemeckis’ Flight is a portrait of a flawed hero. Denzel Washington plays Whip Whitaker, and when we first meet him, he is waking in a booze-soaked room with an attractive (and naked) woman, stumbling for a cigarette while answering a phone call from his ex-wife who is looking for money. He has a flight to catch in an hour, and so he nurses his hangover by snorting a quick line of cocaine and chugging a beer. Kids who want to grow up and fly airplanes: don’t try this at home.
When this same man slips into the front seat of a commercial airliner, we should be concerned. We aren’t, however, and that’s because Zemeckis has already taught us to like this guy too much, by the way Whip coolly slides on his shades, by Washington’s appealingly flirtatious demeanor, and with the soul music that pumps on the soundtrack. When moments later Washington pulls a remarkable feat of flying, flipping a nose-diving plane on its back and eventually gliding gently into a field, saving the majority of people on board, we’re sold. This pilot may be a drunk, but for the next two hours, he’s our hero.
In some ways, Flight passes itself off as a film about heroes, about what true strength and courage really means. But this thematic thrust is diluted by the film’s rather conventional musings on the subject of alcoholism. After the crash, the pilot is the being investigated for manslaughter because of the alcohol found in his toxicology report, even though it is clear the plane crashed because of a mechanical failure. But it is Whip’s drinking, and not the investigation, that really drives the narrative. An hour in and we’re watching scene after scene of Whip getting smashed, while Nicole (Kelly Reilly) a recovering drug addict Whip strikes up a relationship with while in the hospital, looks on. The two hold up in a Georgian farm, Nicole trying to right her life while Whip drinks himself to oblivion.
That Flight holds our attention is a testament to Denzel Washington’s powerful ability to keep us invested in his character despite his despicable behavior. He staggers around, harassing his ex-wife, trying to convince the flight crew to defend him during their federal testimonies, and alternatively berating and showing affection for Nicole. Regardless, we’re with him all the way, if only because Denzel – and his habits – are so darn cool.
“Cool” is one of Flight’s real problems. When he is dealing with the relationships between his ensemble players, Zemeckis’ style is rudimentary or perfunctory. Things only liven up when people behave badly. Other than Washington’s Whip, the only other character in the film that possesses any real dynamism is John Goodman’s Harling Mays, Whip’s friend and bad influence. When Whip’s pilot union handlers find him obliterated one morning, they call on Mays to deliver the right dose of cocaine to perk up their client. The zest of these scenes only drives home how little is going on in the others, which are ultimately at the service of Zemeckis’ simple truths about addiction and searching for inner courage. It strange that in a film that plays as an admonitory sermon about drugs, you find yourself hoping that its main character doesn’t kick the habit, if only for the sake of your own entertainment.