‘I’ ON CULTURE
Flight surprised me by being a very good movie, one with strong performances and a real point of view. Based on previews, I thought this was a movie about a Captain “Sully” Sullenberger-like hero who prevents a major airline tragedy through incredible skill but is tripped up by his flaws. But the movie is far more subtle.
Although on the surface it ponders issues of drug and alcohol use as well as crime and punishment, it is actually a story of a man’s search for redemption. Director Robert Zemeckis, gone from live action movies for a dozen years (his last film was the award-winning Castaway), has put together an excellent plot and great effects and then ensured quality by having exceptional actors in all the parts. It is good to have him back.
Captain Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is a hard-drinking ladies’ man. We see him indulging in a night of rough sex with a stewardess before a flight, wiping out a bottle of booze at a time. He makes himself more alert by snorting a few lines of cocaine and immediately thereafter walks into the cockpit of an airliner and takes command. Things go terribly wrong; there is a malfunction, and the plane crashes. In one of the longest, most sit-on-the-edge-of-your-chair harrowing set of scenes ever filmed, Whitaker turns the plane over in its crashing dive, flying it upside down briefly and manages to land it with only a half dozen deaths.
He is hailed as a hero, responsible for saving over a hundred lives. But then blood tests come in that show he was debilitated while flying, even though a large group of other senior pilots proved unable to match his results on simulators. He is brought up on charges that, although the mechanical malfunction behind the problem had nothing to do with his drug and alcohol use, could lead to charges of murder being filed. His union representative (Bruce Greenwood) and his union-provided lawyer Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle) succeed in getting his blood test tossed out on a technicality.
But the publicity involved in the case and Whitaker’s own inability to deal with his own demons forces an examination of the reasons behind his behavior. At that point, the film switches to a morality play about fighting and overcoming drugs. Will Whitaker be able to beat his demons? Will those who feel he needs to be punished win? And would Whitaker be able to deal with the kind of crisis a trial would bring?
Washington gives a superb performance. It is not easy to win over the audience while playing a really unsympathetic character. Whitaker’s flaws are huge, and, at least at the start, he is unwilling to face up to them. His personal life is a mess; his ex-wife and son despise him. But he is the only one who can find his way to redemption, and in the beginning, he is not really willing to try. Somehow, Washington manages to hold on to the audience’s sympathy. Through all his poor behavior, we can see a man struggling with a problem that holds him prisoner.
The supporting cast is uniformly excellent. Cheadle is very strong as his attorney, and Greenwood is his usual charming self. Melissa Leo, playing a sort of avenger, manages to be both correct and unpleasant, not an easy task. John Goodman has a fairly strange role as Whitaker’s drug dealer. While providing drugs that are terribly damaging, he also provides an element of support that Whitaker sorely needs.
Kelly Reilly has a very strong role as Nicole, a recovering junkie Whitaker meets as he works on his own rehab, whose health is threatened by the pilot’s bad habits. The interaction between the two addicts becomes a strong pillar of the middle to the end of the film. Whitaker seems unable to appreciate the damage his addiction has on others until he gets a firsthand view of his impact on the girl.
This is a new take on an old-fashioned story of good vs. evil with the twist that the hero, at least until the ending (which is a bit quick, weak, and too feel-good), is in the wrong most of the time. But Zemeckis is a strong director (his Back to the Future films are among my favorites) who knows when to use the special effects and when to let his very strong cast create a strong sense of drama.
This is a very good movie; unfortunately not a great one. But it provides plenty of punch and is worth seeing.