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Robert Zemeckis’s new drama, Flight, runs approximately two hours and twenty minutes, but you need the final 100 minutes just to catch your breath from the film’s first act, which includes one of the most riveting emergency airplane sequences ever recorded on celluloid.
In it, pilot William “Whip” Whitaker (Denzel Washington) manages to emergency-land a malfunctioning plane on a routine jump from Orlando to Atlanta thanks to some in-the-moment cunning; nearly all onboard survive the catastrophic flight. But while Whip’s actions are heroic, they also immediately come under question, especially by those in the audience who have already seen him doing lines, emptying mini-bottles of vodka, and taking a nap in the cockpit.
And it’s not just those watching who may be judging him. Upon waking in the hospital, Whip is immediately paired with union rep Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood), an old friend from their naval service, and a slick lawyer, Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle), to mount a defense while the National Transportation and Safety board launches their own investigation into the crash landing. It’s at this juncture that screenwriter John Gatins (Real Steel) cannot decide whether Flight should be a legal thriller in which Whitaker must defend his innocence and competence, or an examination of addiction. He chooses both, and loses the kung fu grip the harrowing early part of his movie had on its viewers.
Whip, it turns out, is a balls-to-the-wall addict, gone to pot with every kind of beer and hard liquor he can find, and it’s unknown whether his recreational use of drugs is limited to cocaine or harder stuff, though eventually he takes up with a recovering heroin addict named Nicole he meets while both are convalescing in the hospital (in, of all places, the stairwell where they both sneak cigarettes). Nicole, played by the quietly astonishing Kelly Reilly, is palpably heartbreaking as a wounded soul battling deep hurt and temptation. And it’s a marked contrast to Whip, who ends up being one of those movie drunks who can down a hotel fridge’s worth of alcohol inventory and not just recover quickly, but have no discernible physical indications. Whip has the best skin tone of any on-screen alcoholic since Jane Fonda starred in The Morning After. This is a movie that shows the disease but not the struggle.
And so Washington must shade in the gradients that make Whip a believable addict, which he does to only a reasonable degree, often relying on his signature braggadocio to sell certain scenes. We know he is damaged, though we never learn why. (One recalls his work sixteen years earlier in Courage Under Fire as a more realistic rendering of a functioning alcoholic). He can signal Whip’s pain, his guilt, his self-directed anger quite well, but what he cannot do is summon any insight into the motivating factors of addiction, which should be Flight’s hallmark.
Zemeckis, so adroit at piecing together the technical artistry (with much kudos going to cinematographer Don Burgess and especially to Jeremiah O'Driscoll) to film the movie’s horrific crash scene, lacks similar employment when it comes to exploring more emotional devastation. He is over-reliant on the use of well-known addict music to buttress Gatins’ story, scoring scenes of someone shooting up to the soundtrack of “Sweet Jane” and “Under the Bridge” and repeating “Casey Jones” numerous times. Flight, too, reduces a promising character, co-pilot Ken (Brian Geraghty), to super-Christian caricature. (Let it be noted though, that the film’s supporting cast, which includes Tamara Tunie as a flight attendant, John Goodman as one of Whip’s enablers, and James Badge Dale as a cancer sufferer with “chemo brain,” in addition to Cheadle and Greenwood, do strong work.)
At one point, Whip acknowledges having gone nine days without a drink, but the film drops the ball by never showing how such a feat was possible. As the NTSB investigation into Whip’s accountability lumbers toward a legal climax, Flight drops the ball when it comes to proper explication of the psychology behind addiction nor the struggle of sobriety. This, as its title plainly suggests, is a movie all about Whip’s need for escape. This is a man who has spent his career up in the air and the rest of his time on the ground chasing a high. But we never learn what he’s numbing himself from. Or trying to escape. Until the film can tell us that, it can’t effectively chart a course back for its complicated but still enigmatic hero.