For Whip Whitaker, the commercial airline pilot played by Denzel Washington in Flight, daily life is about achieving a practiced but tenuous equilibrium between the professional he's required to be and the wreck he really is. As the opening scene reveals, it involves keeping his poisons in harmony: Peeling himself off a hotel bed after a wild night, Whip guzzles the stale swill from a quarter-full beer bottle, does a couple of lines of cocaine as a pick-me-up and strides confidently out the door in his uniform. This is the morning routine.
Only today's brief flight from Orlando to Atlanta will be anything but routine. In a sequence of agonizing intensity — especially for anyone given to pondering their mortality during patches of turbulence — the plane suffers total mechanical failure at 20,000 feet and enters into a fatal nosedive.
An oasis of calm in utter chaos — due perhaps in part to the two mini-vodkas he pilfered mid-flight — Whip skillfully maneuvers the plane into a crash landing with only a few fatalities, a miraculous result by all accounts. To the press and the public, he's a new Sully Sullenberger. Privately, he's in serious trouble.
Returning to live-action filmmaking after a decade lost in the uncanny valley of motion-capture animation — The Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol were a mixed trifecta at best — director Robert Zemeckis follows this gut-wrenching suspense set-piece with a slow-motion crash of another kind. Working from a fine script by John Gatins, Zemeckis cuts through the haze of his hero's addiction with a clear-eyed look at its source, its contours and the soul-corroding lies Whip tells himself and everyone around him just to get through the day. And once the inevitable legal consequences begin to surface, it brings more enablers than help, and his addiction metastasizes in kind.
Zemeckis and Gatins contrast the trajectory of Whip's life after the crash with that of Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a drug addict who isn't nearly as skilled at hiding her problems. After meeting in the hospital, they quickly develop a codependent friendship with romantic overtones, but Flight wisely resists the temptation to turn Nicole into Whip's unlikely savior. If anything, her character exists a bit too neatly to underline just how far gone Whip really is — how unserious he is about acknowledging his problem, much less taking that first step on the road to recovery.
Though the impeccable Hollywood craftsman behind Back to the Future, Forrest Gump and Castaway is very much in evidence, Flight bumps along a turbulent course as Whip tries and fails to sober up and draws Nicole, his flight crew and various airline officials into his unsavory orbit. Though Washington's charisma — to say nothing of the fact that Whip did save his passengers where other pilots would have failed — does much to secure the audience's sympathy, the film commits to circling the drain with him, and it gets ugly, especially when Whip and his handlers lobby for a plan to bury a damning toxicology report.
But there are no villains in Flight, even those who act in craven self-interest. Where most Hollywood dramas would hiss at the union rep (Bruce Greenwood) and high-powered attorney (Don Cheadle) who scramble to cover up the truth, Zemeckis and Gatins are fair in assessing the roles they have to play — roles that sicken them just as thoroughly as they sicken the audience.
One of the big reasons Flight is so satisfying is that it moves with the no-frills, meat-and-potatoes conventions of a first-rate procedural while being awash in ambiguity. Here's a film that starts with a drunk pilot landing a plane that a sober pilot likely couldn't have — and takes up permanent residence in the gray area of that contradiction. (Recommended)