"Flight," a definite contender for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, opens with a terrifying, gripping plane crash, but it turns out that the aftermath of this crash is far more intense than the event itself.
Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington), the pilot of the doomed plane, manages to crash land his malfunctioning plane in a way that, amazingly, kills only six of the 102 passengers and crew members. His extraordinary feat, which includes temporarily flying the plane inverted, should make him a hero, but the investigation of the incident reveals that he was drunk while flying.
Directed by Robert Zemeckis from a script by John Gatins, the film becomes a character study of a tragically flawed man who does a heroic act. He is a highly functional alcoholic, who we painfully watch start drinking over and over again.
The president of pilot's union (Bruce Greenwood) and a lawyer (Don Cheadle) for the airline are quite willing to cover up the fact that Whip was drunk while piloting the plane. His impaired state had nothing to do with the crash, and if he hadn't been in that cockpit everyone would've died. But Whip needs help and covering up his actions isn't about protecting him for jail time, but merely saving the face of the union and airline.
In a parallel story we see the struggles of Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a drug addict who overdoses at the same time of the crash. Nicole and Whip meet in the hospital as they are healing from their respective traumas.
Their first encounter is sneaking a smoke in the hospital stairwell. They are joined by a cancer patient (James Badge Dale) with only days to live. It terms of story, this character, who only appears in this one scene, seems extraneous, but he adds color and helps to introduce important themes into the film. It is the kind of scene that a lesser filmmaker may have seen as non-essential, but it is a credit to Zemeckis that he sees the value of a scene that exists only to build character and mood.
Reilly, who audiences may recognize as Mrs. Watson in the new "Sherlock Holmes" movies, gives a vulnerable and honest performance as a broken woman trying to pull the piece of her life back together. Her performance feels heart-wrenchingly real and is full of subtle moments. She has an eye twitch that is a brief moment that stayed with me as a representation of the authenticity of her performance.
The relationship that develops between Reilly and Washington is the heart of the film. Whip, despite his drinking problems, is a good guy and wants to help and save Mary from her terrible life. He takes her in and she tries to take care of him at his worst, but, as she tries to get clean and sober, it becomes harder for her to stand by him.
Washington, an always reliably great actor, gives one of his most exposed performances. He digs deep into a complex character. He makes Whip charming and likable at the same time that he is frustrating and infuriating. Whip is a man with many great qualities that often get lost in a sea of booze.
On a technical level, per usual from the director of such films as "Back to the Future," "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," "Forrest Gump," and "Castaway," the film is incredibly well crafted.
The visual effects in that opening plane crash are flawless and believable. It is a striking opening, but it is the way Zemeckis handles the movie's raw emotional conflicts that linger far longer. Zemeckis and Washington aren't afraid to create a protagonist that is often difficult to like.
As was true of "Forrest Gump," Zemeckis has populated the soundtrack with songs that always fit the moments just right. The theme song for a drug dealer character played by John Goodman is perfection.
"Flight" is often a difficult to watch, but a rewarding film. The film builds to Whip facing a hearing about the crash. How this scene concludes is one of the most powerful moments in any film this year.