Up in the Air: Denzel Washington gives the finest performance of his career as an addict turned reluctant hero in Flight.
Thursday, November 1, 2012
In Flight, a pilot rescues 96 people from certain death as he guides an airborne plane to the ground after it malfunctions. He’s a hero, right? What if he was drunk, had smoked marijuana and taken cocaine before the crash occurred?
The great thing about Flight is that it’s never about how well the pilot, Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington), flew the plane. We clearly see that he’s in complete control of the plane at all times. We also clearly see him abusing various substances. The crux of the story, however, is on the aftermath and how an alcoholic deals with fame and the scrutiny of his heroism. On one hand he finds love in fellow addict Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a lost soul. On the other hand he can’t let himself be happy. This is a sad, powerful and extremely well made tale of a great deed undone by a horrible disease.
The story: Six people died in the crash. “Someone has to pay,” criminal negligence attorney Hugh Lang tells Whip and his friend/airline union rep Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood). The airline wants to blame Whip. Whip insists the plane fell apart on him. A legal battle ensues, but this is never a courtroom drama.
Instead, writer John Gatins (Real Steel) and director Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump) focus on the self-defeating and self-loathing actions of a man who should be embracing the adulation of those around him. “Stop drinking! Say no! Get away from the bottle,” we think, frustrated that Whip can’t stop when he knows he has to in order to ensure his freedom.
If it were this easy, though, there would be no alcoholics. What you need to remember – and accept – for the film to work is that Whip, regardless of what he says, cannot control himself. Alcoholism is a disease that takes over one’s life and does not relent until you force it to do so. This is why the real strength of the movie is Whip’s battle with addiction and how it ruins his life.
It’s noteworthy, if not commendable that Zemeckis makes his return to live-action on a film with such dramatic real-world implications, what with the substance abuse and all. His last three projects were the performance-animation/3D-gimmicky films Beowulf, Polar Express and A Christmas Carol – not really the most heartbreaking of films. But it’s obvious Zemeckis hasn’t lost the touch that landed him an Oscar for his work on Forrest Gump.
On the other hand, one could argue that Flight is as familiar a movie as Zemeckis could have hoped for upon his return to live-action: The screenplay is well-written with a solid plot, there’s a golden opportunity for terrifying visuals as well as tangible drama and he gets to work with a world-class cast. There was really no way for this film to nosedive.
It helps, of course, that Washington plays Whip and gives one of the finest performances of his career. Watch closely for the sad desperation in Whip’s eyes as he knows he needs to stop but can’t, leaving us to pity him. One of the best scenes comes when Whip needs a pick-me-up, so his old friend Harling Mays (John Goodman, stealing scenes with great comic relief) comes in to get him high so he can be “right.” It plays for laughs, but it’s actually depressing.
What also makes Whip’s journey so intriguing is that we don’t initially realize the extent of his problem, so we want him to be free of all that ails him. What we learn – patiently, through Zemeckis’ steady hand – is that Whip probably needs to go to jail in order to detox. It’s an odd, surprising twist of events.
To that end, you will likely get frustrated with Whip on numerous occasions and rightfully so. You’re never expected to like Whip, or even respect him. He will, however, prompt you to think about your morality. For example, there are moments in which Whip asks surviving crew members to lie for him to the authorities. The crew members are under oath to tell the truth, but do they owe it to Whip because he saved their lives? Each viewer will respond in his or her own way, and there is no clear answer.
What is clear, however, is that Flight, with its themes, performances and direction, is one of the best movies of the year.
FLIGHT (4) • Directed by Robert Zemeckis •Starring Denzel Washington, Nadine Velazquez, Kelly Reilly, Carter Cabassa, Don Cheadle, John Goodman •Rated R • At Century Cinemas Del Monte, Maya Cinemas.