Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is the kind of pilot we all hope is sitting in the cockpit of a commercial airliner when we board. The scary premise of “Flight” is that Whitaker has a problem — he is an alcoholic.
“Flight,” the first live-action movie from Robert Zemeckis (“Forrest Gump”) since “Cast Away,” is yet another screen exploration, following such classics as “The Lost Weekend” and “Days of Wine and Roses,” of people who have lost control of their alcoholic consumption. Here, though, the scary aspect is that Whitaker arrives for work intoxicated, with diminished senses, carrying the lives of dozens on his shaky shoulders.
Washington, known for playing stellar characters, has shown with his Oscar-winning performance in “Training Day” that he can portray bad as well as good. In “Flight,” he manages a balance of offering a character who, if he was not stalked by the tenacious disease of alcoholism, would be a person at the pinnacle of his life.
When “Flight” begins, Whitaker is shown in a hotel room with Katarina (Nadine Velazquez) trying to get themselves in working shape after what appears to have been a mostly sleepless night of partying. Then the whopper is revealed. Whitaker is a commercial pilot, and Katarina is a flight attendant, and they have a Florada-to-Atlanta flight that morning to run.
Up to this day, Whitaker likely has been playing out this scene many times. Divorced with a son who is increasingly alienated from him, Whitaker unwinds with alcohol and women. Then he snorts cocaine, which revives him, and goes to work.
Then a seemingly routine flight becomes anything but as the jetliner, after encountering some nasty weather, suddenly goes into a dive. In a harrowing but spectacularly staged scene, Whitaker battles a piece of machinery that is mortally wounded. He remains calm and focused and performs a maneuver one might think is crazy — inverting the plane. This does avert the dive, but like a deadly chain reaction, the plane continues to fail. Soon it is rendered a heavy glider. Yet Whitaker manages to set it down in a field. It is tragic but could have been worse. Of the 102 people aboard, 96 survive. Including Whitaker.
The torment is only beginning for Whitaker. Now under official scrutiny from the crash investigation, the cloak is removed from the pilot’s secret life. On one hand a hero, and totally convinced his drinking had nothing to do with the crash, Whitaker now must deal with the possibility of civil and criminal proceedings.
A proven actor, Washington is able to use his charisma and skills to serve up a character who is very human. While he can be a caring person — a nice subplot is his friendship and support of a heroin addict, Nicole (Kerry Reilly) — he also can be irresponsible and ungrateful. He tries to cover his tracks by asking fellow crew members to cover for him. He at first scoffs at the efforts of his friend and pilots union official Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood) and an attorney Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle, splendid is what few scenes he has), who manages to squelch a damning post-crash blood test. He lashes out against Nicole when she urges him to get help.
In a telling scene, the night before he is to appear before the investigative board, Whitaker encounters a tremendous temptation. But when it looks like he might fight it off … well …
“Flight” is a wrenching study of the debilitating effects of alcoholism. The tragedy of Whitaker is that his brilliance in the cockpit cannot negate the dark side of his existence — the need to drink to cope in the world outside of an airplane. Although his appearances are scene-stealing and funny, John Goodman as Whitaker’s drug connection Harling Mays upon whom Whitaker is so dependent, is the symbol of the horrible consequences of not seeking the support, of deluding oneself into thinking everything is under control.
Washington adds layers to a person worthy of admiration for the skills he has honed as well as the pity for his weaknesses.
A tip of the hat to James Badge Dale for a brief but memorable appearance as a terminal cancer patient who assumes a sardonic and philosophical attitude toward his fate.