Screenwriter John Gatins made an inspired choice when he settled on Flight as the title of his film. He has written a story that traces the flight path of its main character Whip Whitaker, played superbly by Denzel Washington. Flight is not about airplanes and only mildly touches on the airline business. Instead it’s a rich personality study of Whitaker’s deeply troubled persona. Whip is an alcoholic. An alcoholic by choice as he reminds us several times during the film.
Picture opens with Whip in an airport hotel room with a young woman. He is awakened by a phone call from his ex-wife asking for tuition money for their son. While talking he suddenly realizes he has just two hours before he’s scheduled to captain a jetliner to Atlanta. The couple take the time to drink and snort cocaine before starting what they expect will be an ordinary day.
A severe thunderstorm engulfs the airport while Whip makes his safety walk around the outside the plane. External inspection, check. We’re introduced to two more crew members, the co-pilot Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty), and the purser Margaret Thompson (Tamara Tunie). Flight attendant Katerina Marquez (Nadine Velazquez), the young woman Whip partied with the night before, is also assigned to SouthJet flight 227. The co-pilot, Evans is making his first flight with Whip, and he’s skittish of the storm. Upon departure the aircraft is violently tossed around by the severe turbulence. Whip makes an unorthodox maneuver to reach clear skies. It works. Evans is amazed. Whip goes to sleep.
Flight is Robert Zemeckis’ first time at the helm of a film since Cast Away with Tom Hanks. He hasn’t lost his touch, particularly when it comes to filming airplane crashes. The one staged in Flight is exceedingly more frightening than the FedEx jet that went down in Cast Away (fasten your seat belt low and tight across your waist). Zemeckis is a storyteller and uses special effects sparingly and only if it helps him supercharge the story. I think of his use of SFX as if it were a carefully placed exclamation point. Once we move past the crash, Don Burgess’s camera calms down and shifts into drama gear. We get Whip’s story through an interesting lens; straightforward and honest. It is directly in tune with Whip’s character, in control on the outside, in turmoil on the inside. It works beautifully.
It’s a new world now as Whip faces a crucial life moment. Suddenly all the choices he has made in the past come crashing down on him all at once. His childhood, a failed marriage, being estranged from his only son and now the death of six souls from Flight 227. Whip was able to land that broken plane, averting complete tragedy. He clings tightly to his belief that if he’s not the pilot of that plane, it goes down. The fact that he was drunk and high is completely beside the point.
The pilot’s association hires a criminal lawyer Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle) to help protect the reputation of Whip but ultimately the association. Lang is all business and quite proud of his record. Whip is dismissive and difficult, but eventually learns to listen and accept his help. It’s yet another person trying an on the fly intervention.
There’s a chance meeting in a hospital stairwell that includes Whip, a recovering addict Nicole (Kelly Reilly), we never learn her last name, and a terminal cancer patient. They share a smoke and talk. It’s a convenient way for the filmmakers to bring Nicole and Whip together. A little too convenient. Whip helps Nicole out of a jam, but as with everything else in his life, he loses her, choosing instead the same unbreakable habit. Their meeting is important, but the way they meet struck me as forcing the story.
Every addict has their dark muse. Whip’s was Harling Mays (John Goodman). Mays has an extensive knowledge of drugs as well as an endless supply. He’s in the film for one reason and one reason only. To be the red herring in the next to last reel. We sit on the edge of our seat waiting to hear Whip’s testimony at the NTSB hearing. It’s another chance for him to make a choice.
Top notch production all around, with strategic use of music. The filming of the crash required special equipment and techniques. Portions of the plane’s fuselage were attached to a rig that turned the plane upside down. The actors were trained and tested to be sure they could handle the stress. Safety advisors said that the actors could only be inverted for 60 seconds at a time, then the aircraft had to be righted. After a while, the plane turned and filming began. The footage was stitched together by the special effects team and the outcome is thrilling.
Whip was in possession of a rare gift. The opportunity to get paid for what one naturally does and innately loves. He was able to show up for work and let his brightest skill shine through the clouds. His actions made him a hero, his choices trapped him in a downward spiral. Whip was born in flight. We never learn why he became an alcoholic and we really don’t need that data point. Flight is not about a second chance, or even a third. It’s about having the courage to change the flight plan of one’s life.
Not destined to take Oscar season by storm, but a solid effort. A nice departure from the CGI laced blockbusters. Official Flight web site is nothing special, but at least it’s easy to navigate.