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Movie Review: Robert Zemeckis' Flight (2012)

Updated on January 4, 2013

Director: Robert Zemeckis
Cast: Denzel Washington, John Goodman, Brian Geraghty, Kelly Reilly, Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood, Nadine Valezquez, Bethany Ann Lind

Flight opens up in an airport hotel room in Orlando. Airline captain Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) wakes up in bed next to flight attendant Katerina Marquez (Nadine Valezquez), who is completely nude. They have just spent the night partying, drinking, and having sex. Still hung over from the night before, and with another flight to Atlanta just around the corner, Whip snorts some cocaine to wake himself up and put him back on edge.

Not that it helps much, since Whip sneaks three miniature bottles of vodka into his orange juice while the plane is in the air. After pushing through some heavy turbulence, Whip has his co-pilot Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty) fly the plane, while he sits passed out in his chair. Suddenly, a mechanical failure jolts Whip out of his stupor, and the plane begins an uncontrollable nosedive.

What follows is easily one of the most horrifying scenes set on a plane that I've ever seen. Faced with no other options, Whip rolls the plane in an inverted position and crash lands in an open field not too far from a Pentecostal church. The special-effects in this scene are so terrifyingly real that it's enough to make one swear off flying ever again.

The plane crash is paralleled to another story, that of a young woman named Nicole (Kelly Reilly), who suffers from a serious drug addiction. While the plane is taking its nose dive, Nicole is getting rushed to the hospital after a near fatal overdose of heroin. The two of them meet in the hospital, share a cigarette in the stairwell, and immediately strike up a friendship.

Drunk as a skunk, and still looking like a bad ass!
Drunk as a skunk, and still looking like a bad ass!

Their relationship results in one of the more compelling elements of the film. While earlier scenes suggest a hint of romance between the two, the movie wisely avoids that route and turns their relationship into something built out of empathy and compassion. Reilly and Washington turn in terrific performances when on their own, but they are both at their best when they share the screen.

Nicole is just one of a few supporters for Whip (another being Whip's drug supplier Harling Mays, played with comic zest by John Goodman) when he comes out of the hospital and is told by his union representative Charlie (Bruce Greenwood) and his lawyer Hugh (Don Cheadle) that he faces criminal charges after blood tests show he was flying drunk as a skunk. Six people, two of them flight attendants (including Katerina), died in the crash, and if the investigation shows that it was his alcoholic and drugged out condition that resulted in the six deaths, he'll probably face life in prison.

Hugh conducts his own investigation to try and clear Whip, but the movie focuses less on that and more on Whip struggling with his alcohol and drug addiction. When Whip leaves the hospital, he swears off alcohol. He hides out at his father's farmhouse until the media storm blows over, and the very first thing he does is empty every bottle and can of liquor in his house down the drain. Once news hits him that he faces life in prison, Whip turns back to drugs and alcohol to take the pressure off himself. The movie doesn't shy away from the ugly side effects such addictions bring. Whip gets himself so drunk sometimes that he can barely form complete sentences. In one of the most wrenching scenes in the film, he goes off on Nicole, saying things that are almost unspeakably cruel.

I haven't been able to stop drinking since I did Safe House.
I haven't been able to stop drinking since I did Safe House.

Even as Whip's life takes an even bigger nose dive then the plane at the start of the film, the movie never passes judgment on the man, and the movie is better because of it. It's nobodies place to judge another human being, and while there are instances where the film regards Whip is a sense of pity, it mostly depicts him with an unflinching sincerity. This is Whip. He is an alcoholic. He does have problems. He is a flawed human being. Screenwriter John Gatins develops him into an engaging figure, and with Denzel Washington turning in another one of his powerhouse performances, he also becomes someone we, even at his worst moments, simply can not turn away from.

Flight is not a perfect film. There is a hint that the events in the film are being manipulated by a Higher Power, and while I certainly am believer in a Higher Power, even I can't overlook some of the glaring contrivances that result from this suggestion. This is especially true of the scene near the end, where Whip wanders into an unoccupied, and conveniently unlocked, hotel room with a frig full of booze. Flight also features one cringe-inducing caricature in co-pilot Ken's wife Vicky (Bethany Ann Lind), a God fearing woman who constantly, and robotically, spouts “Praise Jesus!” when Whips visits them in the hospital. Apart from those issues, Flight is a compelling study of a man struggling against demons that constantly seem to get the better of him. It's an honest and heart felt film, and is one of the best of 2012.

*** ½ (out of ****)

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