Robert Zemeckis has a knack for making the ordinary – in this case, addiction – larger than life. In this enthralling character study of a pilot addicted to drugs and alcohol, Zemeckis manages to fill every moment with tension and the audience is simply unable to turn away. Flight is a visually arresting film that, once started, demands to be consumed in full.
Denzel Washington received an Oscar nomination for his role as Captain Whip Whitaker, and rightfully so. Whip is about as flawed as they come: he’s addicted to alcohol, and when he wakes up drunk, he does cocaine to make himself “right” again. Oh yeah, and he happens to be a pilot for a major commercial airline company (think Northwest). After a night out with one of his (incredibly gorgeous) stewardesses, Whip takes a line of cocaine, and boards his jumbo jet, filled with over 100 “souls”, as the airline calls them. Just another day for Captain Whip.
While in-flight, the Captain also manages to sneak three small bottles of vodka into his large orange juice, adding to his already intoxicated state. He then tries to sleep it off as his co-pilot takes over. All the sudden, a large thud is heard, waking Whip up. The plane is in a nose dive, and it’s up to Whip to get them out alive.
The story of Flight is not about what happens during this nose dive, though, but rather what happened leading up to it, and what happens afterwards. With that said, it’s important to point out just how wonderfully tense these few minutes are. A mix of incredible acting, special effects, and script make this one of the most intense moments in the entire film, and it’s only fifteen minutes in. (My girlfriend literally sat up in bed, and commented on how powerful it was, if that gives any indication of this scene’s oomph.)
After this moment, the movie could have gotten stale quickly because we are dealing with “another” drunk who refuses to admit he has a problem like so many movies, books, and stories we’ve been told in the past. It takes an Oscar-worthy performance from Denzel Washington, and Robert Zemeckis’ knack for creating tension, to make Flight the wonder that it is.
It’s not only Washington that shines, though. Don Cheadle, who never gets enough credit, is great as the cocky attorney who tries to keep Whip free. Kelly Reilly, who I hadn’t seen before (but was in the popular Sherlock Holmes films, so many have) is also stunning as a drug addict who, by happenstance, falls into Whip’s story. And then there is John Goodman, who has about ten minutes of screen time, but is absolutely bat-shit wonderful as Harling “I’m on the List” Mays, a drug-dealer and friend of Whip. The acting is top-notch across the board, and Flight would’ve been much lesser with a different cast of characters.
Tension is the name of the game with Flight. I normally go to bed around 10:30 at night, but last night I stayed up a bit past my bed time. I popped Flight in, with no intention of staying awake for more than a few minutes, at 12:05. I could not turn it off. I needed to see how things would play out; I needed to know Whip’s story. That is good filmmaking. There are a few moments where Zemeckis indulges a bit with some slow-motion, and a final freeze frame, but these are so few and far between that they’re barely noticeable. The opposite of those moments are times when Zemeckis experiments with the camera, like when Whip takes the first hit of cocaine at the start of the film. It’s an awesome shot that perfectly defines the moment for the character. Because Zemeckis is willing to stray from his normal visual style, I can forgive the other slight indulgences.
Flight is a great movie made even better by Robert Zemeckis and Denzel Washington. It makes a character study feel mainstream, and accessible, which pretty much says it all.