★★★★ / ★★★★
Having led ten flights in just three days, some might say that Captain Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is not in the best of shape to fly a plane. Add him having consumed high levels of alcohol and cocaine the night prior to flying an airliner from Atlanta to Orlando the next day through a portentous rainclouds, some would say that not only does he choose to be irresponsible, his behavior is downright criminal.
But SouthJet Flight 227 is meant to crash due to a faulty machinery. Capt. Whitaker just happens to get on that plane. Through intense aircraft acrobatics, he manages to minimize the casualties onboard by landing the plane onto an open field. But there is a problem: a tragedy of this magnitude has the National Transportation Safety Board investigating what went wrong, beginning with the crew’s blood samples. Someone is responsible.
Written by John Gatins and directed by Robert Zemeckis, “Flight” is superficially about one man’s addiction to alcohol and how it consumes his life from the inside out. Although a topic that has been taken under a microscope many times before, the material is elevated by a carefully measured lead performance in front of the camera as well as ace talent from behind the lens. It paints a scary portrait of the beast in the bottle that takes control of the mind without relying on typical “down in the dumps” scenarios. That is a feat worth noting.
Whitaker is a man of pride who is deeply hurt that his ex-wife and son want nothing to do with him other than times when they are in need of money. Right from the opening scene, Washington tunes into the pain of his character through anger. But not just anger. Anger with a thin layer of regret and yearning to at least have some kind of connection, one that is rewarding, with his family. I liked the way Washington pulls himself back from lashing out completely at his former wife on the other line because it communicates clearly that Whip values her even though she talks to him like he is less than nothing. It is amazing how we can feel their history when we do not even lay eyes on the two of them sharing a space until much later on in the picture. That is telling of a great script.
We can take the gymnastics that the plane goes through as an example of the director’s level of control. Logically, flying the plane upside down in order prevent it from losing altitude requires a leap of faith. I’m not sure that jet airliners are designed to function that way. However, we cannot help but buy into it completely because Zemeckis pays close attention to the details of a typical flight: stewardesses making announcements while most passengers do not pay attention, people walking about on board, and the stresses on people’s faces when a plane goes through convulsions that can attributed to rough clouds. We also get detailed shots of what happens in the cockpit like what is being relayed between pilots and technicians at the command center. It is an isolated environment and since the elements are in place to align, when a jolt is applied, our eyes are glued on the images. We are thrilled, we are horrified and bemused, and we demand how it will all turn out.
Many people are convinced that the alcoholism defines the picture. I thought about it and I’m not convinced. I think the void that Whitaker has nurtured from within is the spotlight. Yes, we see him drink a whole lot, but why is it that he drinks? Because he wishes to fill in that emptiness. The alcohol and the drugs just happen to be there, the alcohol being most available. There is a reason behind someone being an alcoholic. Look closely during the denouement. The attention is on the person who is making a choice.