Denzel Washington gives a towering performance in his least sympathetic role to date – as an alcoholic airline pilot.
William ‘Whip’ Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is a commercial airline pilot and alcoholic. He is clever, charming and capable, and keeps his drinking problem in check. He takes off in the morning with a line of cocaine and a gulp of stale beer, levels out with vodka and aspirin, then moves to cruising speed with a mug of coffee and a lungful of pure oxygen. His moods are as carefully calibrated as the instruments in his cockpit.
The morning after a boozy episode in an Orlando hotel room, Whip is scheduled to make a routine trip to Atlanta. After a rough take-off, the flight appears to be progressing smoothly that is until the plane plummets into a terrifying, heart-stopping dive. In a spectacularly realised action sequence, which may prove sickeningly vivid for nervous fliers, Whip wrestles the aircraft to an emergency landing in a field beside a church, saving all but six of the souls on board and his heroism is duly applauded.
Did Whip’s alcoholically becalmed state keep him cool and thereby save the plane? How much of a problem, we shrug, can his problem really be?
But then details of his lifestyle begin to surface, casting doubt over his entire character. Can a man still be a hero even when he has a dark side?
That’s the dilemma at the centre of thought-provoking drama Flight. Robert Zemeckis’ first live action film since Cast Away features a riveting turn from Washington as a man thrown into a personal crisis of increasingly stormy proportions.
The movie becomes more compelling as the airline pilot’s turbulent personal life is exposed. It’s like airing your dirty laundry in public. None likes it when it happens to them, but they will sure as hell take a peek, a have a laugh if it somebody else’s mess.
During his stay in hospital following the crash Whip meets an addict named Nicole (Kelly Reilly). They meet up after he gets out and she ends up staying with Whip whilst she tries to get clean and get herself on track. Together they bring out the best and the worst in one another.
After it emerges that Whip was under the influence of drugs and alcohol during the flight the mood changes. Suddenly he isn’t so much of a hero anymore. Whip doggedly avoids the hard facts of his dependency. In this he is abetted by a well-meaning trio of enablers: his affable drug dealer (John Goodman), an old friend and pilots’ union rep (Bruce Greenwood) and an eerily even-tempered lawyer (Don Cheadle), all of whom have a vested interest in Whip’s habits remaining under wraps.
It’s hard to root for a bad guy but Whip prevails. He is a seasoned liar and alcoholic and is he is used to covering his tracks. In the end even Nicole can’t tolerate his lifestyle any longer and leaves. As the court date looms the question on everyone’s mind is this, ‘Will Whip tell the truth?’
Well one this is for certain, he will tell his own version of the truth. Whether it will be truthful or not is another matter all together.
Robert Zemeckis’s Flight is a long, earnest and sporadically brilliant drama about addiction. It turns on an ingenious sleight of storytelling. It reveals the depths of an addict’s self-delusion by making us buy into that delusion tenfold.
Flight is a morally provocative movie; perhaps it is the first psychological disaster movie. The truth is bearing down on all of us like a jetliner in freefall: the sooner we look up, the better.
By Ruth Walker