There are two remarkable things in this movie - the sequence of the horrifying plane crash and Denzel Washington's superb performance that actually rises the mediocre script to quite the few amazing cinematic moments. Flight follows Whip Whitaker - a mess of a man, hopelessly addicted to alcohol, occasional drug user, who lost his wife and son's affection because of his problem. But there is one thing that Whip is amazing at - flying. After the night of drinking spent with the stewardess, Whip is getting on the plane, still drunk. That said - when he puts on his pilot uniform he becomes a true rock star. Suddenly something happens and the plane starts to go down. Whip makes miraculous maneuvers, calming down the stewardess and his co-pilot while inverting the machine and with calm and steady approach - he lands the plane.
From 102 people on the board only 6 die - 4 passengers and 2 stewardesses - including the one he slept with the night before. Whip finds himself in the hospital with minor injuries while the media call him a hero. But the crash was only the beginning of his problems - since the cause of the crash is not known, an investigation is launched. Whip's blood was taken in the hospital and the results show he had alcohol in it. His company hires an attorney to defend him, but Whip doesn't want any help and what's worse - he is a loose cannon - he can only stop drinking for a little while and his actions are completely unpredictable. His only defense is that no one could have landed that plane the way he did.
One of the problems with the film is the way alcoholism is portrayed - at times it was just laughable. We know Whip is an alcoholic, we gather it just from few scenes - but the film keeps showing us hundreds of empty bottles, montages of Whip emptying the house from booze, staggering, mumbling, falling down. Yes, we know. He has a problem. It's one thing to show him completely drunk but why do they keep showing the empty bottles? This kind of film making always plagued Zemeckis's movies. No subtlety, nowhere to be found. There are certain films that nail the issue of alcoholism like last year's brilliant Young Adult, which showed us the hints, focused on the root of the problem and the mental state of the addicted. The way alcoholism is shown in Flight works in the end, but it's only because of Washington's work.
It takes true ability and talent to create such powerful work in otherwise mediocre film. And Washington nails it, he is so much above Daniel Day Lewis in Lincoln - Washington's work is not build or any make up, gimmicks or impersonation - it comes from the gut, it comes from the heart. When the lawyer tells him he tested negative for alcohol in his blood test you can see the confusion and fear on Whip's face - his world is crumbling down, his secret is out there and he is prepared to do everything to keep his ways, his drunken, lying ways, no matter what. Because that is the only thing he knows, the only thing that let's him escape.
What aids Washington's work are rare moments when we get to see truly genius scenes - the night before the hearing, Whip's friend and his lawyer check him into hotel. They instructed the staff to clear out all the alcohol from the mini fridge. During the night Whip, who was sober for 9 days at that point, hears a noise. It turns out there is an empty room right next to his. He finds the mini fridge filled with liquor bottles. He takes one, opens it, smells the liquor, hesitates and puts it on the fridge. Just when you think he resisted the temptation, as the camera focuses on the bottle, Whip's hand suddenly grabs it and takes it away.
The very next scene is another amazing sequence and frankly the film really picks up from this moment - there are no messy distractions (Nicole's storyline) and unintentionally hilarious scenes (PRAISE JESUS!) there. The film is finally consistent and I only wish the whole thing was like that. The hearing sequence is amazing and Melissa Leo shows up as the investigator - she is terrific in that scene, with so little to do she is actually capable of showing the compassion for this broken man before her, just with her eyes. That sequence contains the highlight of the movie for me - what follows after Whip says "God help me" is one of the finest, most amazingly acted out scenes of 2012. I had tears in my eyes.
The film is packed with many skilled actors, but other than for Washington only one of them is memorable - it's every one's favorite John Goodman yet again playing the guy who you would love to be your friend. Well, in case of this movie, if you were an alcoholic and needed cocaine at times. Goodman appears only couple of times, always with the accompaniment of Rolling Stones's immortal hits, but he steals spotlight every time. The hotel room sequence is astonishing and hilarious, what you are seeing is so surreal and unbelievable. The reactions of Bruce Greenwood and Don Cheadle - who play the friend and the lawyer respectively - mirrored mine as I was watching this crazy thing.
There is one character in the movie that is completely pointless, though. Early in the film we meet Nicole, drug addicted ex photographer. She overdoses and ends up in the same hospital as Whip did after the crash. The two meet and she moves in with him at one point. Later she disappears and we don't see her until the very end, when it is hinted that her and Whip are still in touch and support each other. The problem is that she brings nothing to the movie. Kelly Reilly, very talented actress, does her best, but the problem is that everything that happens to Whip would have happened without her.
Nicole is merely a plot device that is used to show us certain things - when she asks Whip to come by and participate in AA meeting it is only so we would see that he doesn't consider himself to be an alcoholic.What's the worst thing is that she has absolutely no part in Whip's turning point - what he does has nothing to do with Nicole. So she didn't really help him in any way, as he already had a friend who tried to help him out and as he already had enough of decency in him to made the choice he had to make.
The biggest issue I had with this movie is that they had this amazing opportunity here and they completely blew it. They had this INCREDIBLE ethical and legal problem and the film barely dwells into it. Here is the guy who is an alcoholic, who pilots the plane drunk. Yet he is still able to do things that sober pilots wouldn't be able to do - he has such skill and talent that he saves 96 lives. He doesn't look nervous, he is completely calm. Would he be as calm if, as an alcoholic, he wouldn't indulge his addiction? Would it be better if he was sober and killed more than 6 people on board? If he was sober would those 6 dead people be alive? The film doesn't even try to answer those questions. It doesn't even ask them - I do.
Even with all of that wasted potential, Flight is definitely worth seeing as it features one of the finest performances of 2012 and it has some amazing, brilliant sequences that won't leave you for a very long time after seeing it. The film has one of the best soundtracks of the year, the selection of songs is really terrific and I really love it whenever Gimme Shelter, one of my favorite songs, plays in the films. It's a good movie showing alcoholism but not a good study of alcoholism - we have all of those poignant scenes and honest performance from Washington, but it never goes any deeper, it never shows a true tragedy of a person who has to drink to escape and still thinks he has a choice whether or not to drink.
Flight (2012, 138 min)
Plot: An airline pilot saves a flight from crashing, but an investigation into the malfunctions reveals something troubling.
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Writer: John Gatins
Stars: Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, John Goodman and Don Cheadle