I’ve been a big Denzel Washington fan for as long as I can remember, and although his last two films, “Safe House” and “Unstoppable,” weren’t on a par with some of his best movies, he’s definitely back on track with “Flight,” a superbly acted character study that may be in the mix for a best picture nomination.
William “Whip” Whitaker is crack commercial airline pilot with a weakness for women, booze, and cocaine. As the film opens, we find Whip in Orlando, Fla., where he has spent the night in a hotel room drinking and having sex with Katerina Marquez (Nadine Velazquez), one of the flight attendants who is employed by the same airline company as Whip is.
Whip is groggy and hung over his night of debauchery, and he has a flight to Atlanta scheduled for that morning, and after a mean argument over the phone with his ex-wife, he uses his favorite method of waking up and becoming alert – he does several lines of cocaine. Thus, feeling refreshed, calm, and high, he heads off to the airport and an appointment with the friendly skies.
The skies don’t prove very friendly, however, because shortly after takeoff the flight runs into some nasty turbulence that really shakes up the passengers. But Whip calmly pilots the aircraft through it and then turns the plane over to copilot Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty), who has never flown with Whip before and who senses that something is not quite right with him.
Whip gets up and addresses the passengers to assure them that everything is all right, but his left hand is out of view, and he uses it to empty three little vodka bottles into an container of orange juice. After his little speech and his drink, he returns to the cockpit where he promptly falls asleep.
Just before the descent into Atlanta, Whip is rudely awakened by a jolting noise, and suddenly the plane goes into a dive. Whip calls on all his experience and knowledge as a pilot to avert disaster, and he manages to execute some very nifty flying before finally crash landing in open field. Of the 102 passengers and crew members on board only six lose their lives, and Whip, who was knocked out during the crash, finally regains consciousness in an Atlanta hospital.
Although many consider Whip a hero for saving so many lives, the National Transportation Safety Board performed a toxicology test on him while he was in the hospital, and, of course, it reveals he was bombed out his mind. Now Chip may lose is pilot’s license and go to prison on manslaughter charges. And the majority of the film chronicles the NTSB’s investigation and Whip’s attempt to cope with it as well as deal with his alcoholism and cocaine addiction.
Whip epitomizes the archetypical tortured soul in this film, and Washington portrayal of him is lights out. Whether Whip is drunk or sober, Washington is consistently believable to the point where you really forget he’s acting. In addition to wrestling with his drug issues, Whip realizes that his career is on the line. Although he’s convinced that a mechanical failure caused the aircraft to go into a dive, he also knows he brought the plane down while his system was glutted with drugs. In the film’s production notes, screenwriter John Gatins (Coach Carter) offered an interesting analysis of Whip.
“‘Flight’ is a character study about a guy really struggling with his own demons. And what should have been a typical day of work for him becomes a series of unfortunate events that leads to a disastrous occurrence on his plane. From there a larger story unfolds both personally and professionally for him. As that world continues to unfold, we watch the man in the center unravel.’’
During his brief stay in the hospital Whip meets Nicole Maggen (Kelly Reilly), a woman who almost died from an overdose of drugs, and the two of them form a bond. She has been evicted from her apartment, and he offers her a place to stay at his farm where he’s trying to get his head together. Their relationship escalates into a troubled romance because she is trying to stay straight, and he can’t stay away from the booze. Washington and Reilly have a nice chemistry, and their heartbreaking relationship provides an interesting subplot in the film.
Another fascinating character here is attorney Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle), who represents the sleazy side of the law because he interferes with the NTSB investigation by making the results of the toxicology report disappear. Cheadle is an outstanding actor, and he’s in top form in this film.
From the horrifying scenes on the airplane to the tension-filled investigation following the crash, “Flight” is a consistently intense film, and the presence of John Goodman as Harling Mays, Whip’s good friend and drug supplier, offers some welcome comic relief at several places in the film.
What I particularly liked about this film is that it wasn’t just another movie about a plane that is about to crash or one that has been hijacked. The early scenes on the aircraft are incredibly tense and remarkably staged. In fact they just reaffirmed my aversion to ever stepping aboard another flight. But the story after the crash landing is the meat of the film, and it’s an intriguing look at how the plane mishap affects the lives of others. In the production notes Academy Award-winning director Bob Zemeckis (“Forrest Gump”) explained what he found so interesting about the film.
“What really appealed to me was how complex all the characters were — they are all sort of shaded grey. They aren’t the typical ‘good guys, bad guys.’ Everyone in the film is, to some degree, damaged and that becomes the dramatic engine for the piece. What’s also interesting about it is that the suspense in the movie comes from the uncertainty of what the characters are going to do, how they are going to respond. It’s not like there’s a ticking bomb or a meteor that is coming to destroy the earth. The anticipation comes from not knowing what the characters are going to do from scene to scene. It’s so rare to find a screenplay that has that kind of depth and complexity. That’s what compelled me. I wanted to see how this was going to resolve, what would happen to Whip’s character.”
“Flight” (Give it an impressive nine.) features one of finest performances in Washington’s outstanding career, and don’t be surprised if he receives his sixth Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Whip. He really makes him come alive on the screen, and despite Whip’s obvious problems and weaknesses, he’s a guy we can’t help liking.
When word gets out about how good “Flight” is, look for it to really take off at the box office.