Director: Robert Zemeckis
Starring: Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, Bruce Greenwood, Don Cheadle, John Goodman
Captain ‘Whip’ Whitaker is piloting a commercial flight from Orlando to Atlanta when an equipment malfunction causes the plane to nosedive from 30,000 feet. Whitaker manages to perform a miraculous manoeuvre to clear a residential area and bring it down in a field. Only six of the 102 souls on board lose their life and Whitaker is hailed as a hero. However, routine toxicology reports after the crash reveal something that Whitaker has managed to keep secret his whole career. Whip Whitaker is an alcoholic and a drug user, a revelation that could have a devastating effect on his career.
Flight sees director Robert Zemeckis return to live action filmmaking after a decade in which he was an industry leader in the exploration of motion capture. It also marks a departure for the director in terms of tone. Zemeckis started his career as a Steven Spielberg protégé and with films like Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and The Polar Express his body of work has maintained that whimsical, Spielbergian sense of fun. Flight goes somewhere much darker, tackling the serious subjects of alcoholism and addiction. Despite a couple of moments that lacked a bit of subtlety, Zemeckis handles the material very competently.
Flight doesn’t over-simplify Whip’s alcoholism, but allows for complexity in the exploration of a complex issue. The film would have been much more straightforward, and much less interesting, had Whip’s alcoholism been the cause of the crash. But as it is, screenwriter John Gatins makes Whitaker the hero of the incident. He is an excellent pilot. It is on the ground, in his private life, that he can’t function.
Most of the noise around Flight has concerned the performance of Denzel Washington, who gives a powerful performance as Whitaker and has rightfully been nominated for a Best Actor award at the upcoming Oscars. Playing believable drunk without going over-the-top is not as easy as you’d imagine. Aside from his incredible talent, what really makes his performance work is the brilliant ‘against type’ casting. As an audience we associate Denzel Washington’s characters with qualities like honour, strength of character, courage and determination. His performance as quite an unsympathetic character in Flight works against all those associations we have and leaves us really conflicted by Whip. Working against type is something Washington has done before with great success, most notably in his Oscar winning performance in Training Day.
There are also some strong supporting performances. Most notable is Kelly Reilly who plays Nicole, a drug addict who Whip meets in hospital and befriends. Nicole becomes the emotional centre of the film. Her character is so important because she provides the contrast to Whip. Despite struggling with the same issues of addiction that Whip is, their approaches are completely different. She is determined to get better. He lives in denial. She is open. He is defensive. Nicole is as sympathetic a character as Whip is unsympathetic. Also, John Goodman – one of the best character actors working today – provides some humour in his role as Whip’s friend and supplier.
Flight is a good film carried by a great leading performance. It is a powerful exploration of the impact of alcoholism on a person and those people around them.
Rating – ★★★★
Review by Duncan McLean