Denzel Washington is such a sturdy, reliable actor that his name on the screen has become synonymous with that of hero (with the obvious exception of Training Day). So it’s hard to buy him as a doped-up, alcoholic heel in Flight, an edgy thriller about the responsibility—and inherent culpability—of commercial pilots entrusted with the lives of millions. I’d place my trust in Denzel in the cockpit any old day while humming “Fly Me to the Moon” at the same time. So it’s not easy to accept him as one of the irresponsible jerks who dangle their passengers in harm’s way. You just sort of trust him to do the right thing, and when he finally does, after more than two hours of soul-searching and moral hand-wringing, you might, like me, have double trouble with plausibility. So I have some minor problems with Flight. But don’t let that deter you. It’s the first film in over a decade by director Robert Zemeckis that guarantees originality, tempo and thrills. You go away satisfied and up to your eyeballs in entertainment.
Mr. Washington plays Captain Whip Whitaker. He’s a seasoned, charismatic ace with a lot of wings on his uniform. But on the ground, he’s a deeply conflicted catastrophe, with an ex-wife who avoids him like a virus, a son who hates him, and a serious booze and drug problem. He’s also a womanizer with attitude issues, committed to nothing and nobody, who breaks every rule in the pilot’s manual. Snorting coke at dawn after a wild night in bed with a sexy flight attendant, he heads for the airport in pouring rain, stoned to the fins, and boards a 9 a.m. flight from Orlando to Atlanta with 102 passengers onboard. Arrogant enough to think he can outsmart severe turbulence, he ignores the 30-knot winds outside as well as the nervous shakes of his young co-pilot (the always excellent Brian Geraghty), the impaired abilities of Katerina (Nadine Velazquez), the flight attendant he just spent the night with, and the concerned, watchful eyes of senior flight attendant and old family friend Margaret Thomason (Tamara Tunie of TV’s Law and Order: Special Victims Unit). The hydraulic system crashes, the two pilots lose vertical control and the plane plummets in an uncontrolled dive that leaves the passengers screaming in terror. The first 20 minutes of Flight, short-wired for combustion, is one of the hairiest nonstop action sequences ever filmed, proving that in the 12 years since Cast Away, Mr. Zemeckis has forgotten nothing about how to stage the kind of breathtaking live-action fireworks display that keeps an audience paralyzed.
Miraculously, with skill and luck, Mr. Washington heads for an abandoned field and crash-lands in an ear-splitting explosion of fire and metal with 96 survivors. Although his girlfriend is one of the casualties and his co-pilot is crippled for life, the mantle of heroism bestowed on him is worthy of a ticker-tape parade. But before he’s even out of the hospital, the first person he calls is his pony-tailed, overweight hippie drug dealer (an amusing performance by John Goodman), who smuggles in cigarettes, vodka and porn. He may be declared a public hero, but the errant knight’s troubles are just beginning. A crafty airline lawyer for the pilot’s union (Don Cheadle) who specializes in investigating pilot errors sniffs out evidence of criminal negligence, the toxicology report from the hospital blood tests shows alarmingly high alcohol and cocaine levels that could lead to lawsuits against the airline, and despite his bravery, Captain Whitaker faces life in prison on multiple counts of manslaughter. The rest of the movie is about the efforts of his friends and colleagues to help him beat the rap and save his career, his efforts to go straight, and his subsequent self-destruction. And in a subsidiary subplot, he moves to his grandfather’s deserted farmhouse in rural Georgia with a beautiful heroin addict (Kelly Reilly) who tries to rehabilitate him. Every character has a moral ambiguity that keeps the balls in the air, including the exemplary Melissa Leo as the prosecuting attorney who, like all of the others, is not above complicity.
In less capable hands, Flight would undoubtedly seem like a series of rehashed themes from other movies. But the high level of craftsmanship from the fine cast and crew—particularly Mr. Zemeckis’s slick and controlled direction, and the nuanced details and tonal shifts in a terrific screenplay by John Gatins that is both carefully researched and extremely clear—all add up to unexpected levels of sophistication. Certainly Denzel Washington’s charm and unimpeachable sense of decency help the viewer sympathize with an otherwise flawed character who—let’s be honest—is basically little more than a despicable and delusional lout. (One can only wonder what a different movie it would have been with an edgier actor like Robert Mitchum or Burt Lancaster in the role.)
My biggest problem with Flight is not the unanswered questions it raises, but the eleventh-hour epiphany just in time for a happy ending. Maybe I’m naturally cynical, but I simply don’t believe that people are basically good at heart—and I don’t buy into sudden salvation. Otherwise, Flight is one hell of an entertainment.
Running Time 138 minutes
Written by John Gatins
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Starring Nadine Velazquez, Denzel Washington and Carter Cabassa