Robert Zemeckis’s new film Flight
will make you squirm in more ways than one. You’ll probably never, ever, ever unfasten your seatbelt during flight again! But, the excessiveness of the “accident,” even as it keeps you white-knuckled and uncomfortable, is one of the problems. Denzel Washington’s character, pilot Whip Whitaker, completely wasted from the night before, welcomes the passengers aboard with the cocky assuredness of an ace pilot. He does, indeed, save the flight from sure disaster during one of the most harrowing scenes I’ve ever seen. It’s just that it is so improbable and extreme. After you recover from the almost unbearable tension of the chaos aboard the plane and begin to think about it, you’ll realize that what was portrayed on screen is impossible. The trailer shows Whitaker flipping the plane to an inverted position to stabilize it, but I checked with a friend who works for Lockheed Martin, and a commercial jet liner is just not designed to fly inverted as a smaller plane, like a fighter jet, can. Of course, it was done with special effects, but it doesn’t really look real.
The audience already knows that Whitaker has a problem, but when his blood test shows that he was under the influence of alcohol and cocaine, the six fatalities from the crash become possible manslaughter charges. Whitaker’s friend and union representative Charlie (Bruce Greenwood) brings in a hot-shot criminal lawyer, Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle), to defend him and preserve Whitaker’s hero status – as well as to defend the airline from ruinous lawsuits. They intend to blame it on the manufacturer. This film is really about Whitaker’s denial of his substance abuse problem – one that has alienated his family and caused anxiety for his friends.
Whitaker’s ex-wife Deana (Garcelle Beauvais) and son Will (Justin Martin) want nothing to do with him. His longtime colleague and friend, flight attendant Margaret Thomason (Tamara Tunie) looks the other way even as she prays for him and tries in vain to save his soul. Even the lost soul he meets in the hospital, heroin addict Nicole (Kelly Reilly), fresh out of rehab, may not be able to stomach his outrageous habit. She has an abusive landlord and no other place to go, so Whitaker “rescues” her and takes her to stay with him at the old family farm. He’s trying to stay off the grid and away from the media. Nicole, however, has decided to continue her recovery, so Whip may lose his “getting high” companion.
Meanwhile, union-rep Charlie and lawyer Hugh are just trying to keep Whip sober and out of sight until the FTSB hearing where Whitaker will state his scripted account of what happened. In their way is Whip’s dealer, Harling (John Goodman), who’s so charismatic that Zemekis has him enter while The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” blares out so that you’ll be reminded that he’s a very bad guy. It’s a bravura performance by Goodman – more than a match for Denzel Washington’s equally fine performance. But, here’s another problem. Washington is such a powerful screen presence and beloved actor that the audience seemed to have trouble accepting the utter contemptibility of his character. When his character messes up, which is a frequent occurrence, audible comments could be heard. It’s a distraction when folks are saying “No! Don’t do it!” and “s**t!” to the character on screen. They weren’t quiet about it, either.
Overall, the extremity of the situations – both during the accident itself and the aftermath – limits credibility and weakens the story. There are a couple of scenes meant to show the seamy underbelly of the addict’s world – one includes full-frontal female nudity - that come across more as “shock value” and do not really advance the plot. I hesitate to use the word “gratuitous”, but it really was. Will there be redemption for Whip Whitaker? There are a number of possible endings for this film. You’ll have to be the judge of whether or not the filmmaker has provided a satisfactory one.