Director: Robert Zemeckis
Cast: Denzel Washington, Nadine Velasquez, Don Cheadle
Synopsis: An airline pilot saves almost all his passengers on his malfunctioning airliner which eventually crashed, but an investigation into the accident reveals something troubling.
As he’s recuperating in hospital after successfully guiding down a stricken airplane, commercial pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) sneaks out of his room for a crafty smoke in the stairwell. A young woman, Nicole (Kelly Reilly), is sitting on the stairs smoking a cigarette of her own. We met Kelly earlier: she was suffering a drugs overdose as Whip was battling to keep his plane from ploughing into the area where she lived. After a few moments, a third person, a young man (James Badge Dale), joins them. He’s a cancer patient, and the conversation inevitably turns to how he feels about the nature of his illness. The young man is emphatic about his belief in God, and His responsibility for giving him the cancer. It’s a theme that resonates throughout Flight — a movie whose title has many connotations — this placement and abdication of responsibility, together with the need for someone, or something, to blame for our misfortune — and one that is complicated by the fact that Whip was drunk and high on cocaine when he steered his plane to safety and saved the lives of 96 of the 102 people on board.
Whip’s a functioning alcoholic who deep down has no desire to stop drinking. He goes dry after the crash, pouring a small lake of alcohol down the sink at the cabin in which he seeks refuge from the intense interest of the media, but it only takes one piece of bad news to jolt him off the wagon. That news is delivered by Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood), his union representative, and Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle), the union’s lawyer. Immediately after the crash, blood samples were taken from all the crew, and Whip’s toxicology report has revealed exactly how far under the influence he was at the time of the crash. When Whip bridles at the possibility of going to prison — “nobody could have landed that plane like I did,” he insists with contained fury — Lang confidently assures him that he can kill the report. His plan is to have the possibility that the crash was an ‘act of God’ added to the possible causes of the crash in the NTSB’s report. As it turns out, Whip is right about nobody else landing the plane — a number of accomplished pilots all crash while trying Whip’s manoeuvre on a simulator, a fact which muddies the water even further.
At its heart, though, Flight isn’t really about whether or not Whip will escape imprisonment for flying under the influence, but whether he will finally face up to the fact that he’s an alcoholic and it’s this decision on the part of writer John Gatins that prevents Flight from being a truly great movie. It’s still a very good movie — probably one of the best of 2012 — but it seems to sidestep the really interesting issues arising from Whip’s condition during the crash to focus instead on the more familiar battle with the bottle storyline. Of course, Washington is terrific in the lead role of an essentially decent man driven to do unsavoury things when it looks as if he will finally pay the price for all the risks he has taken. He keeps emotions to a minimum but somehow manages to convey the pain of a man struggling to maintain what self-respect he has left as he calls on colleagues to lie for him at the enquiry into the crash.
Whip’s only apparent hope of redemption comes not from the union that is fighting to keep him out of prison — and save itself in the process — but from Nicole, that girl on the stairwell. She and Whip form an unlikely couple, perhaps because he sees in her a reflection of his girlfriend Katerina (Nadine Velazquez), an air hostess who was amongst the unlucky six to die in the crash. Katerina was also an addict, and because Nicole was recovering from an overdose, Whip no doubt was drawn to what he perceived to be a kindred spirit. But Nicole has touched bottom and is on her first uncertain steps towards recovery, thus providing Whip with yet another benchmark against which to measure his descent rather than the companion in oblivion he had expected.
Flight is an intelligently crafted script that really deserves a better storyline. We’ve seen so many times the story of addicts on the verge of meltdown who face difficult decisions if they are to salvage what remains of their lives, and Flight doesn’t really diverge from that well-trodden path. At 138 minutes it also feels a little loose, and could have benefited from a good 10 or 15 minutes off its running time.