Release Date: November 2, 2012
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Writer: John Gatins
Stars: Denzel Washington, John Goodman, Don Cheadle, Kelly Reilly
MPAA Rating: R
In the opening scene of Flight, pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) wakes up in a hotel room next to his flight attendant Katerina Marquez (Nadine Velazquez). As she leisurely saunters around the room fully nude, Whitaker finishes the last sip of beer from the night before, then snorts a line of coke before suiting up and boarding an airplane, ready to fly 102 people to Atlanta.
It’s a jarring scene that you don’t expect from director Robert Zemeckis or star Denzel Washington. But then, that’s the point.
While Zemeckis has been content to direct a string of animated children’s movies and Washington has been busy starring in a slew of forgettable action movies that work best as fodder for Jay Pharoah on Saturday Night Live, it’s clear that the duo set out to make something different this time around. What they ended up with was a very edgy and intimate portrayal of one man’s struggle with his personal demons. They also ended up with what is perhaps the most harrowing and suspenseful plane crash in cinematic history.
As the still drunk and high Whitaker takes control of the commercial plane owned by the fictional Southjet Airlines, he first fights his way through some bad weather and turbulence thanks to some first class hotdogging. Then, toward the end of what had settled into a rather mundane flight, the plane begins to nosedive due to a mechanical failure.
Whitaker is able to level the plane out and buy some time by flying it upside-down. Ultimately though, after being forced to dump the fuel, he has to make an emergency crash landing in a field.
The entire plane sequence is a brutal, visceral experience. You really feel the tension as the plane plummets out of control and Whitaker springs into heroic action. Even though you know that the plane will somehow land safely (since it would be a rather brief movie if Denzel Washington’s character died in the beginning), it’s still an incredibly suspenseful sequence.
Of the 102 people on board, miraculously only six die. Whitaker is instantly branded a hero. But as he’s rushed to the hospital and a toxicology report is run, it’s uncovered by investigators that he had cocaine in his system and a blood-alcohol level of .24.
In the hospital, where he’s recovering from a concussion and damage to his knee and his right eye, Whitaker meets a heroin addict who just overdosed named Nicole (Kelly Reilly). The rest of the film centers around the bond the two of them form, Whitaker’s struggle with addiction and the investigation into the crash by the National Transportation Safety Board.
The reason the film works so well is because it avoids a lot of Hollywood pitfalls in telling Whitaker’s story. The screenplay was written by John Gatins, who based it on his own struggles with addiction. He’s able to get the little details right about Whitaker, which keeps the character from feeling unrealistic or clichéd.
Gatins and Zemeckis also never shy away from showing just how awful Whitaker’s addiction is. They love playing with the idea that, while this guy is a hero who made a landing that no other pilot could have made, that doesn’t excuse his addiction. If anything, it makes it more tragic because he’s such a talented guy who just can’t stay out of his own way. His alcoholism is awful and it hurts everyone around him and the film makes sure to show you every painful moment without excusing any of it.
Denzel Washington’s performance is fantastic. There is a complete lack of vanity and a really understated brilliance to his portrayal of Whitaker. He appears pudgy and looks haggard throughout the film. Washington is also able to capture the various levels of drunkenness Whitaker experiences throughout the film without making any of them seem over-the-top or hammy. And he captures the charm Whitaker is capable of, as well as his unrelenting arrogance, perfectly. Washington is able to get you to sympathize with his character without ever excusing his actions. Obviously, the whole movie hinges on his performance and he absolutely nails it.
John Goodman is also really great in a small supporting role as Whitaker’s dealer. Don Cheadle, who plays the lawyer representing Whitaker, gives a very solid performance as well. And British actress Kelly Reilly, who nails her Georgian accent in the film, is quite good as Nicole.
The film is very well-paced and beautifully shot. The plane sequence is phenomenal and the rest of the film, which settles down to a much quieter and more intimate affair, is very well done. Zemeckis offers up a solid soundtrack of familiar songs as well, particularly getting great mileage out of Joe Cocker’s “Feelin’ Alright.”
It’s a well-crafted film by an Academy Award winning director and an Academy Award winning actor both hungry to tackle something weightier than their recent on-screen offerings. It’s also a very gripping story about addiction pulled from the personal experiences of the writer, who manages to avoid the Hollywood storytelling pitfalls that crop up when tackling this type of subject matter. It’s a really refreshing and moving adult film that I highly recommend watching. Just don’t plan any air travel anytime soon after seeing it.
Written by Joel Murphy. If you enjoy his reviews, he also writes a weekly pop culture column called Murphy’s Law, which you can find here. You can contact Joel at firstname.lastname@example.org.