Can a scumbag also be considered a hero? Lance Armstrong fans probably mull that question each time a new, unsavory revelation about the now-disgraced cyclist comes to light. The issue was addressed in 1992’s Hero, which starred Dustin Hoffman as a low-life who saves a group of passengers on a crashed airplane. Flight also takes to the not-so-friendly skies to examine whether it’s possible to reconcile a lifetime of destructive behavior with an extraordinary act of valor.
You wouldn’t necessarily guess that from the film’s punchy trailer — see below — which paints Flight as a cynical gloss on the Sully Sullenberger story. (The movie’s protagonist even has a similarly folksy, alliterative name: Whip Whitaker.) Instead, Flight is an R-rated drama that presents one of the most unflinching portrayals of drug and alcohol addiction you’re likely to ever see in a mass-appeal film from a big-time director and starring one of the world’s most famous movie stars.
Denzel Washington stars as Whip, a divorced airline pilot who achieves overnight fame when he performs a daring mid-air maneuver that saves nearly 100 lives. Unfortunately, Whip is also a heavy drinker who snorts a line of cocaine before he’s even had a chance to grab his morning coffee. So it’s not exactly a surprise when a toxicology report reveals he had alcohol in his system on the day of the ill-fated flight.
As officials investigate the crash, Whip tries to dodge manslaughter charges with help from colleague Frank (Bruce Greenwood) and attorney Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle). More importantly, he constantly battles guilt over the people he couldn’t save and tries to resist the urge to climb back into a bottle while bonding with fellow addict Nicole (Kelly Reilly).
If this sounds like heavy stuff, it absolutely is. Flight also seems like an odd project for Robert Zemeckis to choose for his comeback after a decade-long motion capture animation vacation. Then again, Zemeckis may have actually been jonesing to do an R-rated drama. Though the desert island shenanigans in Cast Away — Zemeckis’ last live action film, way back in 2000 — got most of the attention (R.I.P Wilson), people tend to forget the director gave us one of the most harrowing plane crashes in recent movie history. The crash sequence in Flight is equally gripping and outstanding.
Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, the Back to the Future trilogy) has also made a few of the most popular films of all time and he brings that crowd-pleasing touch to some of Flight’s darker moments. Don’t get me wrong: the director and writer John Gatins — who based his sharply observed screenplay on his own struggles with alcoholism — don’t make a mockery out of addiction. It’s just that Zemeckis is savvy enough to stage moments that cast a hotel minibar as the movie’s main villain or make audiences wince every time Whip knocks back a drink. He’s also unafraid to let a popular song — “Feelin’ Alright” by Joe Cocker, or “Under the Bridge” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers — underscore a scene.
Of course, the director gets a huge assist from his star. Washington is excellent, vanity-free and perfectly cast as Whip. His movie star swagger is on display during the character’s more arrogant moments and the actor’s commanding screen presence make him totally believable when the plane starts to go down and Whip takes charge. Most importantly, Washington has garnered so much goodwill among moviegoing audiences that we subconsciously root for him to stay on the wagon even as his character’s behavior becomes increasingly deplorable. (Though I will say the lively audience at my advance screening was very consciously invested in Whip, audibly groaning every time a liquor bottle appeared on screen.) Washington hasn’t been this challenged in years, and he rises to the occasion.
Since this is very much a character study/one-man show, there’s not a ton for the talented supporting cast to do. Cheadle’s considerable skills are mostly squandered in his role as a win-at-whatever-cost lawyer who clashes with the destructive Whip. (Fans were surely excited for the Washington/Cheadle Devil in a Blue Dress reunion. Maybe that was just me.) John Goodman scores the film’s heartiest laughs as Whip’s flamboyant supplier. (Fans were surely excited for the Washington/Goodman Fallen reunion. That was definitely just me.) Goodman turns up for a final act sequence that will likely be a big hit with audiences, but I felt veered too much into silliness and undermined the drama. Meanwhile, Oscar winner Melissa Leo doesn’t even speak until the very end as a formidable adversary of Whip’s.
Then there’s the character of Nicole, who seemed to be set up as Whip’s love interest/salvation, but winds up being almost entirely inconsequential. Reilly gives a fine performance, but Zemeckis could’ve completely cut her out of the movie with no ill effects and kept his film’s 138-minute running time under two hours. (The fact that she’s almost completely MIA from the movie’s trailer is another strong hint that she’s not exactly essential.)
Making a movie about drug and alcohol addiction that is respectful, truthful and entertaining is a tough task. (Functioning Addict would’ve been a more appropriate title for Flight, but I don’t see people lining up for Functioning Addict on a Saturday night.) Though some of the lighter moments occasionally knock the story’s tone out of whack, both director and (especially) star deliver this difficult material with the same blunt-force panache Whip used to land his plane.