Days of wine and airlines
Robert Zemeckis’ compulsively watchable new movie begins with a shocking notion: suppose you’re on a passenger flight and the pilot is drunk? Then suppose the plane is flying in terrible weather, and develops irreparable mechanical problems? This is the situation screenwriter John Gatins (Hard Ball, Real Steel) takes on in Flight, which throws it all at you: mortal danger, heroism under pressure, moral confusion, the threat of jail time. The plane goes into a nose dive, but Captain Whip Whitaker (the formidable Denzel Washington) performs a bold set of maneuvers that saves the day. After the emergency landing the media present Whip as a hero. But a blood test shows he was legally drunk while piloting the plane. Flight starts out as a disaster movie and then pulls a switcheroo and turns into a character study of addiction and recovery. And the movie works because both parts are effective. Denzel’s performance in the cockpit and the digitals of the crazy flight disaster and the chaos on board are as stunning as any in the genre. But when Whip wakes up in the hospital the movie turns compellingly to his confusion and ambivalence, which are suspenseful because of the scrutiny the disaster has brought upon him. There are no wrong moves here in Zemeckis’ first return to regular live action directing in a decade. Here is a mainstream move that has both visceral excitement and emotional depth. The excellent supporting cast is headlined by Kelly Reilly, John Goodman, Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood and Melissa Leo. Gatins, who started on the script fifteen years ago, has still managed to keep it snappy, outlining things clearly and forcefully but not losing subtlety or turning maudlin or preachy. But there is a lesson here. Whip Whittiker may be the ultimate high-functioning alcoholic, but his accomplishment still leads to personal disater. Maybe the screenplay is a little too wound up about its recovery topic — it’s hard for someone who’s overcome addiction not to be — but that’s its only serious flaw.
The opening sequence, itself a shocker, shows Whip awakening after a glamorous night of debauchery with Trina (Nadine Velazquez), a fellow alcoholic, and a flight attendant who’s working with him. The flight is early. It takes a couple lines of cocaine to get him up and ready. The snort of cocaine starts a jump cut to the plane, where Whip enters fully uniformed, looking commanding — but we know the state he’s in.
In the flight sequence, after several on flight vodka miniatures, Whip performs with breathtaking cool and skill, using tricks he learned flying in the Navy. There remains the question whether the whole disaster might have been avoided had he been fully in command of his senses. Given the terrible weather, he might have just cancelled the flight But this sequence dazzles, and is a neat structural device, because no matter how sullen and unappealing Whip seems thereafter — and we well understand how his ex-wife (Garcelle Beauvais) and estranged son (Justin Martin) would have no use for him — we always remember he can be a hell of a pilot. And so we also understand how Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood), his old Navy pal, now a pilots’ union rep, would want to save him from the very serious charges he could incur for flying drunk in an accident with fatalities.
At the hospital he meets Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a heroin addict, masseuse, and would-be photographer whom he latches onto, thinking he can save her. She later has to save herself by losing him.
Whip hides from the media at his grandfather’s Georgia farmhouse, where he pours out gallons of booze he had stashed there. The gesture is symbolic, because when he learns the charges he’s up against, he abandons logic and is back bingeing. Nicole was in the hospital after OD-ing and resolves to stay clean, taking Whip to an AA meeting (which he quickly slips out of). She realizes she can’t reclaim her life and live with him. He doesn’t realize anything. The truth takes a while to sink in, and longer for him to tell to the world.
Denzel Washington is the man to put across the weakness-in-strength of this character, a man who is on a long-term downward spiral but capable of remarkable courage and skill under pressure.
John Goodman, in a rakish Dude performance as Whip’s boon companion, enabler, and dealer, is cast as the Devil — “Sympahty for…” by the Stones heralds his first appearance. In fact Don Cheadle, as the lawyer the pilots’ union brings in to save Whip, is the Devil too. For an alcoholic, everyone is an enabler, and a Devil. The question is whether Whip will end his personal nosedive as he did the planes, or go down with these enablers’ encouragement.
Flight moves toward a kind of courtroom climax, though it’s technically only a hearing of a union board headed by Melissa Leo, whose questions lawyer Cheadle has set up Whip to dodge. But how this confused, conflicted, unsympathetic yet somehow charismatic figure will turn out is never clear till the last moments of the film — which come a little late and are a bit preachy, but not enough so to spoil the strong earlier segments.
Flight, 137min., debuted as the closing night film of the New York Film Festival, where it was screened for this review on October 14, 2012. It will be released in the US Nov. 2, the UK Feb. 1, 2012, France Feb. 13.
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Writer: John Gatins
Stars: Nadine Velazquez, Denzel Washington, Carter Cabassa