by Laurie Coker
On the surface, Flight looks like it might be a film about a hero and a plane crash, but in fact, it’s an intense exploration of addiction and all the trials that this entails. My father wanted to see it with me and I eagerly obliged since he doesn’t often ask, but the first several minutes made me quite uncomfortable, not because of the harrowing crash I knew would come, but because of the depressing and all too real look at substance abuse and a life spinning out of control. Washington’s portrayal of a man who manages to fool himself and others (or so he thinks) about his addiction, until he pulls off a miracle, astounds and mesmerizes, even in its darkest moments and there are plenty of those.
After a long, long, long night of partying and sex, Whip Whitaker (Washington) pilots a commercial plane, wired on cocaine, hung over (until he nips a little “hair of the dog”) and on no sleep. Miraculously, he not only flies the aircraft, he pulls off a remarkable crash landing, saving all but six of the souls on board, when the craft suffers a mechanical malfunction. By all accounts, Whitaker is a hero, until that is his condition (i.e. sobriety) comes in to question, regarding that fateful day.
While recuperating in the hospital, Whip meets Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a recovering heroin addict, who nearly died of an overdose. She vows to never use again and tries to get Whip to follow her lead, but he hasn’t hit bottom hard enough. His legal counsel (Don Cheadle) and pilot union rep and friend (Bruce Greenwood) do everything they can to save Whip from prison and himself, but his addition has a tight grip. His best friend appears to be his drug dealer, Harling Mays (John Goodman) and Harling delivers, even when Whip is in the hospital.
Flight is an amazing film, but it is often quite difficult to watch, in part because of Washington’s remarkable performance. Whip’s story is one of despair and self-destruction and Washington delivers every passionate moment with such intensity and realism that, at times, I (and others around me) found it nearly impossible to view. Direction Robert Zemeckis, working with a well-penned screenplay by John Gatins, doesn’t hold back on anything when showing the dismal, disgusting and dark side of addition and his star rises to it. Zemeckis shies away from nothing, not the lies, the denial, the binging, and the losses associated with addiction. From the film’s onset, we know Whitaker has already lost nearly everything, except his job and fellow addict, flight attendant, (Nadine Velasquez) – his wife, his home, and his teenage son, who now hates him and his dignity.
Zemeckis, who of late has done more animated features than live action – he last being Castaway in 2000 – explores far darker territory with Flight. From the film’s start he captures the audience’s attention and never lets go for the whole of its more than two hour run time. While we watch in the first few minutes of the film, a scenario including drugs, drinking and full frontal nudity unfolds, and during the next twenty (when we see the flight) we watch a man, high on cocaine, with a blood alcohol level of .24 (more than double the legal limit for driving), pull off a landing that no other, sober pilot could manage. Then he and Washington spend the remainder of the film delving into the deep chasms of dependency.
I’d like to say Flight, rated R, is perfect. Washington certainly is, but it is not. A scene (involving an unlocked hotel room and a mini-bar) near the film’s finale feels feebly forced and unnecessary. Furthermore, for all the seeming realism, in addition to this contrivance, there are other holes in the storyline. For example, as I understand it, pilots are subject to routine drug tests, for example, and Whip is obviously not. The cast, even those underused like Cheadle and Goodman (obviously having a heck of a good time), frame Washington well, and Reilly carries her own next to the film’s star, providing a clear and stark contrast between an addict who faced death and one who believes himself invincible.
Because of its intense subject matter, Flight, whose trailers mislead, will not appeal to everyone. Perhaps it will hit too close to home for some, especially since most of society directly or indirectly knows this subject well. Will people want to sit for more than two hours watching such a weighty theme unfold, even with the exceptional lead and co-stars? I wonder and am guessing not. For my take, I am placing a B+/A- in my grade book. It is a must-see that is tough to see.