Sunday, November 4, 2012
FLIGHT: Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, Bruce Greenwood, John Goodman, Don Cheadle (138 min.)
Flight tells the story of a man imprisoned by alcoholism and drug abuse. The only catch is, this man is a gifted airline pilot who, once a malfunction occurs on his plane, lands the jet in a field in a way no other man could have done and saves a hundred lives. He just happened to be loaded at the time. This is the moral conundrum at the heart of the story and at the heart of the man, Whip Whitaker, played by Denzel Washington in what might be his best performance in a decade.
As the film opens we see Whip in an airport hotel room, hungover and cleaning off the remnants of beer bottles scattered around the room. He just pulled an all-nighter with a flight attendant, and he does a few lines of cocaine to "even himself out" because he has to fly a commercial airliner in two hours. He cleans up, knocks down another drink or two, and takes off through a storm into clear blue skies where he can polish off a screwdriver and take a nap. Only the plane malfunctions and in a moment of pure instinct, Whip rolls the plane over to balance out the nosedive. The crash scene in Flight is unlike most crashes in film; it is quiet, almost serene as Whip navigates towards the empty field. The exhilaration of this crash is unlike anything I have felt in previous crash-related pictures.
Only six people die and Whip is hailed as a hero. Out of ten simulated crashes like his, all ten pilots failed to pull off what he did in the skies. Of course, toxicology reports come into play and Whip is facing what might be life in prison. This is where any of the sensationalism of the first act goes away. We meet Whip in the midst of a bender and in control of a jet, but once the crash happens Flight then becomes an intensely personal character study of a man battling alcoholism. Bruce Greenwood plays Whip's oldest - and most tolerant - friend, Charlie, who brings in an attorney (Don Cheadle) to clean up the toxicology reports. Whip also has a close friend and supplier in Harling Mays, played by John Goodman as an eccentric old man with a pony tail and a wiry personality.
The most fascinating relationship is between Whip and a recovering addict, Nicole, played by relative unknown Kelly Reilly. Nicole and Whip meet at the hospital and fall into a relationship which quickly becomes threatened by Whip's alcoholism. Everything is threatened by Whip's brutal and unflinching alcoholism. There has never been a more unsettling portrayal of the disease this side of Nicolas Cage's brilliant work in Leaving Las Vegas. As the pressures of the hearing near, Whip fights his disease and loses most of the time. This is a story of his struggle.
It has been twelve year since Robert Zemeckis directed a live action movie with Cast Away in 2000. That was another film with a seminal performance from Tom Hanks. Although the film is a little long at times, the performance of Washington kept me firmly engaged through the heavy segments. And the final moments of the film are as gripping and emotionally devastating as anything I have seen in 2012. Flight is not what it appears to be in the advertisements; here is a study of the damage alcoholism and drug abuse has on a human. Even if that human might be the only man on the planet who could have done what he did to save a hundred lives.