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Flight: A Movie Review
I love Stephen King. I’d hesitate to call him my favorite author for a variety of reasons, however. Stephen King is definitely the most prolific author I’m a fan of (either him or Christopher Pike), but favorite, no. Foremost among those reasons that he is not my favorite is mainly because once I have read a Stephen King book, I have very little desire to read it again. There are some exceptions to this, as I’ve probably read The Drawing of the Three and both versions of The Stand multiple times, but the chances of me ever picking up Under the Dome or It or The Dark Tower IV-VII ever again are pretty slim. The reason for that, aside from the fact that the man is wordy for the sake of being wordy, is that he sucks at endings. He’s great at world-building and set-up, great at setting the mood and getting under your skin with characters that you both love and love to hate, but his endings absolutely suck.
I bring this up because Flight has a fantastic set-up and it completely falls apart in the last ten minutes. Denzel Washington is Whip Whitaker, an airline pilot with a drinking problem, and everyone on his flight crew knows about it. Not only do they know about it, but they enable him every step of the way, not even batting an eye when he shows up to fly hung over and stoned, downs a couple mini bottles of alcohol, takes a few hits off an oxygen mask, and falls asleep during the flight. This is all business as usual for Whip. Unfortunately, on this particular flight, a damaged jackscrew sends the plane into a nose dive from fifty thousand feet. Whip displays an uncanny ability to do his job while severely impaired and in an absolutely spectacular set-piece manages to land the plane with minimal damage and save 96 of the plane’s 102 occupants. This sequence, the movie’s only action set-piece, is really one of the high point of the movie, as it is both harrowing and suspenseful even though you know he’s going to land the plane (it is only ten minutes into the movie, after all). It’s really worth watching this movie just for this sequence
As good as this sequence is, I want to make clear that the rest of the movie is no slouch. The true depths of Whip’s problem come out only after he lands the plane. Whip retreats to his grandparent’s farm and immediately purges the alcohol from his system, tossing an absolutely insane amount of alcohol down the trash, and it looks like he’s going to turn his life around. His demons come back to haunt him when he is confronted by his pilot union rep and his appointed lawyer, who inform him that everyone is looking for someone to blame for the crash and his toxicology reports are painting him in a very bad light. Whip immediately turns to alcohol to deal with his problems and Flight does a fantastic job showing just how low he is willing to sink.
Whip is a fascinating character, and Washington does a great job helping to raise the character above the level of stereotypical drunk, something that could have very easily happened with a less talented group on both sides of the camera. The drunk who drinks to escape his life and maintains that he doesn’t have a problem is a stock character and, frankly, it’s one done to death. Whip does claim that he doesn’t have a problem, true, but the problem that he thinks he has is apparently one of his own choosing. He believes he can stop any time he wants but instead he chooses to continue to drink and he chooses this because of what he perceives to be an insane situation he’s been placed in. In that regard, he’s correct; the fact that he should never have gotten behind the controls of the plane has absolutely nothing to do with the accident, as it was mechanical failure that would have occurred no matter how sober he was, and it was only his amazing piloting skills, unduplicated by every other pilot that has been thrown into a simulator, that saved the day for everyone. He doesn’t believe he should go to jail as a result of the accident and he chooses to drink to cope with that. Whip’s lawyer (played by the entertaining Don Cheadle) manages to get the toxicology report killed, thereby ensuring that Whip is going to get off scot-free provided he just stop drinking. Instead, he makes his choice.
Whip’s not a good guy when he’s been drinking. He alienates Nicole, a recovering drug addict who he begins a relationship with after getting out of the hospital, a woman desperate to sober up and make something of herself. He guilt-trips his flight crew into lying and saying that he was capable of flying by pointing out that, regardless of his condition, if it wasn’t for him her son would be looking at her in a pine box instead of mourning another. He shows up at his ex-wife’s doorstep and berates her for accusing him of drinking seventeen seconds into their antagonistic conversation when she’s absolutely correct about him. Whip’s a massive asshole who is not above stepping all over everyone in his life to take care of himself. And yet, this is all tempered by the fact that, without his skills (drug-addled or not), 102 people would have died instead of 6.
And then you get to the ending, where he can avoid every consequence of his actions by passing off a couple of empty bottles onto a dead stewardess. Whip finally reaches his breaking point and refuses to let a dead girl, one who saved the life of a child during the flight by leaving her own seat to strap him back in, take the blame that should lie solely on his shoulders. Whip ends up going to prison, although that is not why I have issues with the film. Whip is right in that the crash was not his fault, but taking the crash out of the equation, you really shouldn’t be drunk and/or high when flying fifty thousand feet in the air. Whip deserved to go to jail and it’s really the best thing that could have happened to him. But to accompany this, Whip gets to give an incredibly saccharine speech that wouldn’t feel out of place in an after-school special (probably because it has been in every after school special, ever).
Having Whip face up to his demons and choose to make a different choice, for once in his life: good. That damn speech: so, so bad.