There’s no denying Denzel Washington is powerful in Flight. The film is buoyed by his charisma, and his acting choices are always subtle and strong. Washington avoids the cheap and easy Oscar clip reel moments, instead allowing his character to come across in small moments. He finds truth in the conflicted, damaged soul of hero pilot and alcoholic Whip Whitaker (f'realz).
Too bad the rest of the movie is such trite shit that it will make you long for a shot of whiskey. Flight stumbles along for a punishing two hours and twenty minutes, barely ever making any nods in the general direction of drama beyond the intense opening plane crash that sets the story in motion. I spent a big chunk of the movie hoping there would be a twist of some sort, a turnabout that would rescue the movie from being the world’s best acted, most boring Afterschool Special. There was not.
Whip Whitaker wakes up in a Miami hotel room with a hot stewardess, drinks a beer, does a line of coke and then performs an almost miraculous feat of heroism as he safely lands a plane that should, by all rights, have crashed and killed all onboard. There are only six fatalities, including the stew with whom he was having a wild night. The film’s central conceit is that, even though Whip is demonstrably heroic and cool and calm and correct under pressure, the very presence of drugs and alcohol in his system makes him a bad guy. It feels a little binary to me, but this is a movie about modern recovery programs, and they’re all binary. AA doesn’t believe in moderation - it believes you drink or you don’t drink. And even though the movie kind of goes out of its way to show you that Whip’s a better, more capable guy when he’s high or drunk, you’re supposed to know that it’s bad anyway, mmmkay?
I understand where the film is coming from, that it wants to de-emphasize the usual melodrama that goes on in movies like this. But John Gatins’ script is simply slack, stringing together scenes that - on their own - are watchable but that go nowhere. You can easily take a thirty minute break in the middle of the film and miss nothing, except for some great work by Denzel. The movie actually goes out of its way to de-emphasize anything dramatic; we learn that an immediate blood tox test alerted the NTSB that Whip was drunk, and that he has a real ball-buster investigator coming after him. But we never meet the investigator. We never get a view of the other side of the investigation. We never understand why the NTSB is so interested in destroying a man who, without any doubt, saved lives in a disaster that was not of his own making.
What makes this so deadly, storywise, is that we know Whip will end up clean and sober. This is a Denzel Washington Oscar season movie. The ending is preordained. It’s like a Die Hard movie - John McClane’s gonna win. But the fun isn’t finding out how it ends, it’s finding out how you get to the end. And by not having any drama or struggle in the middle of the movie - everything just traipses along well-worn paths of addiction stories (his new girlfriend has had enough! His son doesn’t love him!) - Flight becomes a tedious exercise in waiting for the inevitable smarmy, uplifting ending.
There are fine moments along the way. John Goodman steals the film in a couple of scenes that actually threaten to put some energy into the proceedings. Don Cheadle manages to come across like a naive 22 year old, which is excellent acting. Bruce Greenwood is stable, which is pretty much all you need him to be (his role in the movie is to be the guy who says “Maverick, you can’t take the plane that high, we’ll all die!” and then be amazed when Maverick does it). Kelly Reilly weeps well as a junkie whose path crosses Whip’s in the most contrived screenwriterly way possible.
What you’ll hear the most about is the crash at the beginning of the film. Director Robert Zemeckis is a master visual storyteller, and the crash sequence is masterful. At the same time I found it weirdly without impact - a metaphor, if you will, for the whole movie. Previous great plane crash scenes - including Zemeckis’ own in Cast Away - rely on a feeling of being out of control. After all, that’s the great fear in a plane crash, that you’re strapped in and there is NOTHING YOU CAN DO. That’s the terror. In Flight we see the crash from the point of view of Whip, who not only is supernaturally gifted as a pilot, he’s also played by Denzel Washington. Few actors have the commanding comfort that Denzel has, and while the crash is well staged and shot, I always felt okay, having Denzel in the pilot seat. I’m a bad flier, but from now I’ll just imagine a coked-out Denzel in the cockpit, and I’ll be relaxed.
The greatest movie about a drunk is Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend. The film isn’t packed with incident, but it has a sweaty intensity that makes it a nerve-shattering watch. Ray Milland’s performance is more performance-y than Denzel’s, but that’s maybe the only thing Flight has over Wilder’s classic (if you’re the kind of person who can’t get behind pre-Method acting styles, anyway). Where Wilder squeezes tension out of every scene, Zemeckis just lets moments flop out - beautifully shot, but without any power. Both films are remarkably free of sentiment, but only one is free of momentum.
Flight tested my patience throughout. The only way it deviates from the long history of clean & sober addiction movies (including Clean & Sober) is in its steadfast refusal to be interesting or engaging. I don’t doubt that it comes from a serious, honest place within the people who made it, even while it’s blatant Oscar bait. It’s just that it comes from a serious, honest, Oscar baity place and is a total fucking bore.