Outside the distilling and brewing professions and some areas of entertainment, society condemns on-the-clock drinking nearly across the board, but the mere idea of tippling pilots can send both frequent and infrequent flyers into panic mode. In Robert Zemeckis' “Flight,” a confident and consummately skilled pilot pulls a passenger plane out of a death plunge while registering a blood alcohol level that would render most people unsafe at any speed, but the real crash in Whip Whitaker's life is taking place in slow motion.
Denzel Washington plays Whip as a self-assured master of the cockpit, a former Navy officer piloting regional jets up and down the Eastern Seaboard. He is a charmer, but a lifetime of self-medication is catching up with Whip — these days, it takes a lot more to get him vertical after all-night hotel parties with chemically enhanced flight attendants. His entire life seems to be an effort at “leveling off”: If Whip drinks too much, a bump of cocaine gets him back on his feet, and if the coke makes him too edgy, a little vodka smoothes him out.
One rainy morning, Whip starts his day with that breakfast of dissolute former champions and boards his jet at Orlando International Airport, prepared to take it up and take it down on a 53-minute flight to Atlanta. Most of his crew knows the drill, warily and wearily accepting their captain's addled state, but Whip's new straight-arrow co-pilot smells the booze and senses his captain's unfitness.
Nevertheless, Whip knows what he is doing, impaired or not, taking the jet through the turbulence and into a break in the storm.
Then, as the crew begins their descent, the jet suddenly takes a nose-dive due to equipment failure. His nerves steadied into numbness, Whip executes a heroic and unlikely maneuver that saves most of the “102 souls” on the flight. In his last live-action film, 2000's “Cast Away,” Zemeckis engineered one of the most memorable plane disasters in film history, but this sequence in “Flight” tops it — plummeting passenger jets will trump hobbled FedEx cargo planes every time for sheer terror value.
Whip becomes an instant hero on 24-hour cable news, but with the arrival of National Transportation Safety Board investigators and union rep and Navy buddy Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood) at his bedside, the pilot can sense that he is on borrowed time. Whip will be found out unless the union's legal fixer, Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle) can suppress Whip's toxicology report while the incident is being reviewed by investigator Ellen Block (Melissa Leo). The NTSB is a source of tension in “Flight,” but the real enemy is, of course, Whip's total dependence on drugs and alcohol. Throughout “Flight,” Whip makes several halfhearted efforts to thwart his addiction, but the will is weak. His ongoing disaster is measured against the progress of Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a heroin addict who overdoses and is taken to the same hospital where Whip recuperates.
Nicole's near-death experience scared her into recovery, but almost nothing scares a man who works 30,000 feet above the ground.
For all its potential for pathos and sentiment, “Flight” is often corrosively funny in portraying Whip's callous adherence to his own self-mythology and the circle of enablers who conspire to keep him afloat.
John Goodman enjoys a bull-in-a-china-shop cameo as Harling Mays, Whip's drug dealer and an experienced engineer when it comes to shocking his client back to life, and Harling has an interesting way of pulling respectable operators down to his level. Just when “Flight” looks like it could veer into an easy recovery, Zemeckis and screenwriter John Gatins steer Whip back into turbulence.
Zemeckis spent the past dozen years attempting to perfect motion-capture filmmaking through movies such as “The Polar Express” and “Beowulf,” but most of these projects were received coldly because of their characters' attenuated expressive range, or what critics called “dead eyes.” But Zemeckis is back in the land of the living with “Flight” and he chose well in casting Washington in the lead. Washington's natural charisma and cultivated acting skill are often best deployed in the service of playing anti-heroes. He plays Whip as a tragically flawed born leader, a well-liked man whose friends and co-workers are unable or unwilling to pull him out of his free fall.
— George Lang
Starring: Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood, John Goodman. (Drug and alcohol abuse, language, sexuality/nudity and an intense action sequence)