The new movie “Flight” is many things — an adult drama about addiction, a star vehicle for Denzel Washington, a character study disguised as a thriller — but about two-thirds of the way through I began thinking of it as a horror movie. Except instead of wanting to scream “No! Don’t go in there!” at the screen, I wanted to yell, “No! Don’t open the mini-bar!” But of course the mini-bar is opened. Characters in these types of movies have a choice: to open the mini-bar or not open it. When they stop opening it, the movie stops.
In “Flight,” Denzel Washington gives one of his best performances as Whip Whitaker, a hot-shot pilot who also happens to be an alcoholic and drug addict. The previews for “Flight” made the film look like the story of a good and innocent man, wrongly accused of something he did not do, but the opening scenes make it clear that Whip is no innocent: He spends the night drinking with his flight attendant girlfriend, snorts some cocaine to wake himself up, puts on his captain uniform, and heads to the airport for a commuter flight. He steers the plane through some rough weather, drinks some vodka, takes a nap at the controls and is jolted awake when a mechanical failure causes the plane to nosedive toward Atlanta.
As everybody on board freaks out, Whip calmly instructs his colleagues and guides the plane to a rough landing in a field. His actions are amazing and heroic (the film makes it clear that if Whip hadn’t been at the controls, every passenger on board would have died), but the National Transportation Safety Board still has questions. Such as: Why did Whip’s blood test, taken while he was in the hospital, reveal that his blood alcohol level was beyond the legal limit? And if drink service was suspended due to turbulence, why were empty bottles of vodka recovered from the wreck? Fortuantely, Whip has the backing of his union rep, Charlie (Bruce Greenwood), and a shrewd attorney, Hugh (Don Cheadle). Neither of these men are fooled by Whip’s stories and excuses, and they make it clear he must stop drinking, at least until he’s cleared of wrongdoing. “We can get you help,” Hugh tells Whip. But Whip declines help, which is basically the story of his life.
“Flight” is directed by Robert Zemeckis, who has spent the last decade making stop-motion animated films such as “Beowulf” and “The Polar Express,” but is responsible for some very good live action films, including “Back to the Future,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” and “Cast Away.” His handling of the flight scenes is masterful, and although the rest of the film settles down into a much more conventional story, it is obviously the work of a skilled craftsman.
But as the film progressed, I felt that I wanted something more from it — something more than an updating of “The Lost Weekend.” The lessons of “Flight” are very simple, and will be familiar to anyone with passing knowledge of addiction and recovery (or the addiction and recovery genre of film). Much of what happens is completely predictable: We see Whip briefly vow to stop drinking and dump out all the booze at the family farmhouse, and we see him start drinking again, after a stressful meeting with Hugh and Charlie. We see him walk out of AA meeting, and drunkenly try to reconnect with his ex-wife and teenage son. We see him insist that he can control his drinking, and guzzle down beer in his car. It’s a familiar story, and there are only two ways it can end: in death, or redemption.
“Flight” does contain some interesting themes that I wish had been more fully fleshed out. For some reason — perhaps because he’s played by Denzel Washington — I couldn’t stop rooting for Whip, and the film stubbornly insists that he should be held responsible for his behavior, even though his drunkenness had nothing to do with the plane crash.
By refusing to let Whip off the hook, the film offers some refreshing perspective on how the public and the media build people up as heroes, and then act flabbergasted and angry when these heroes turn out to have flaws. (The Petraeus story provides a good example of this sort of behavior.) Whip’s heroism exists side by side with his flaws, and this is something the audience must grapple with. “Flight” also makes a tentative stab at exploring the meaning and nature of religious faith, with Whip’s co-pilot insisting that God landed the plane, and that Whip was put on earth for a greater purpose, and one of Whip’s crew members repeatedly inviting him to church.
But “Flight” isn’t interested in telling a religious story, and the film eventually abandons its religious themes, preferring to take a more conventional path to its too tidy conclusion. Though perhaps that’s to be expected: Zemeckis is a tidy director.
For an addiction story, “Flight” is surprisingly suspenseful, and the final third, where Whip prepares for an NTSB hearing, had me on the edge of my seat, as I waited to see whether Whip would relapse. These final scenes contain an edge and dark sense of humor that keep the audience off-kilter, and provide some insight into the basic challenges an addict faces when navigating everyday life. The scene where Whip SPOILER ALERT! DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS! discovers the mini-bar in the adjacent hotel room is agonizing, and the scene of the morning after, when Charlie and Hugh summon his drug dealer (John Goodman) to supply the cocaine needed to get Whip through the hearing, is both hilarious and sad.
Around this point, I began to wonder whether Whip was really going to get away with it all, but of course he doesn’t, confessing that he flew the plane drunk during the hearing. Why does Whip do this? It’s not entirely clear. Perhaps he just couldn’t bear the thought of throwing the dead flight attendant under the bus by saying that, yes, she drank the vodka on the plane. Or perhaps “Flight,” in choosing the redemptive path, couldn’t have ended any other way.
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