Film Review: Flight (2012)

Written by: John Gatis
Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
Running Time: 138 minutes
Rated: R

Denzel Washington: Whip Whitaker
Kelly Reilly: Nicole
Bruce Greenwood: Charlie Anderson
Don Cheadle: Hugh Lang
John Goodman: Harling Mays
Nadine Valezquez: Katerina Marquez

"Flight" is a very intense portrait of heroism and addiction. The film follows the plight of Captain Whip Whitaker, a former navy pilot who is able to pull off one of the most amazing landings of all time. On a flight from Orlando to Atlanta, his plane malfunctions and a crash is imminent, he manages to invert the plane to stabilize it, then flip it back to land. While the rest of the crew and all of the passengers are completely panicking, Whitaker manages to stay calm, focused, and makes a series of perfect decisions. Of the 102 souls on board, 96 survive. The crash scene was one of the most intense I've ever scene (made even more intense by the fact that I was on a flight while watching it going from Atlanta to Orlando). Whitaker is hailed as a hero right after the accident, but the truth is far darker.

Just prior to getting on his 9am flight, Whitaker wakes up next to one of his flight attendants, Katerina, with whom he has a semi-relationship. Clearly it's been a sleepless night for the two, fueled by drugs and alcohol. As they get ready for their flight, they have the breakfast of champions (beer, pot, and coke). During the flight, he has a double screwdriver. When the plane malfunctions and literally falls apart, he is steady and clear as to the correct course of action. Because he is a long time addict, the substances he ingested probably made him more steady. And they were not the cause of the problems with the plane. But if you have a blood alcohol of 0.24, it doesn't really matter what the cause of the crash is or the fact that no one else could have landed the plane like that and saved so many lives. If you are impaired, you don't have a leg to stand on.

Unlike the plane in a nosedive, Whitaker is unable to reverse the downward spiral that is his life. When the film begins, it is clear that he has lost a lot. He is divorced and fights with his ex over tuition for his son, he no longer flies for a big company like Delta but for one of the cheapo airlines, and his best friend (John Goodman) is a yes man willing to enable his addictions by bringing him alcohol in the hospital. But as long as we're alive, we all have something to lose, and it seems Whitaker is not willing to change to keep it.

While on a smoke break in the hospital (Atlanta's Saint Joseph Hospital), he meets a junkie (Nicole) recovering from an overdose of heroin. This poor girl has hit rock bottom and the two recognize each other in the broken pieces of their lives. After he is released, he finds her and takes her to his late father's old farm (a former crop-dusting company). While she is desperately clinging to sobriety and attending meetings, he continues to use. 

Of course, it doesn't take long for the results of his blood tests to become known to his union. One of the union reps, Charlie Anderson, visits him in the hospital. The two used to fly together in both the navy and for Delta, so Anderson knows the kind of pilot Whitaker is. Because of their history, Anderson doggedly supports Whitaker, even when it is clear he is beyond help.

Hugh Lang is the criminal attorney hired by the union to handle any possible criminal charges. Due to the results of the toxicity screen, Whitaker is potentially facing prison time for criminal negligence or worse- negligent homicide. Throwing morals and ethics to the wind, Lang manages to get Whitaker's blood tests thrown out due to faulty lab equipment. He advises Whitaker to clean up his act until they are done with the investigation and hearings. 

But Whitaker can't stop using. Ultimately Nicole has to leave in a heroic act of self-preservation. She knows that if she stays, she will not survive. His old friend, Charlie Anderson, even allows him to stay at his home in the week leading up to the hearing in an effort to get him clean. But ultimately it all comes down to the night before the hearing, when in a hotel under guard, Whitaker discovers the door to the adjoining room unlocked and fully stocked. It doesn't take him long to throw away 8 days of sobriety while  consuming an entire hotel mini-bar.

Anderson and Lang find him unconscious and bleeding on the bathroom floor. As they discuss how they should proceed with the hearing beginning within hours, Denzel utters the word "cocaine". They call his longtime buddy, Harling Mays, who shows up to get him in shape. The scene that follows is chilling to watch. Whitaker is barely coherent when Mays gets there. But after doing several lines of coke following by a "cocoa puff", the transformation is nothing short of a miracle. He gets up and walks in the bathroom to shower as if nothing had happened. And it's off to the hearing from there.

Whitaker is a man with very little integrity or morals. He is constantly given "second" chances and opportunities to turn his life around. But at every turn, he just can't make a good decision. The film has one asking the question: just how morally depraved is this man? How far will he let it go before he does the right thing? Where is his line? It's not when his wife divorces him and he loses his son. It's not when he has to work for a crappy airline. It's not when his girlfriend dies in a plane crash It's not even when he can't even maintain a relationship with a junkie. What will it take?  

Denzel Washington gives the best performance of his career. I have to say that I have not always thought he was the best actor around. I certainly did not agree with his Best Actor Oscar for Training Day. But he is astounding in this role. He's restrained, quiet, and doesn't chew up the scenery like he usually does. He turns in one of the most authentic portrayals of an addict that I've seen in a while. The moments that he appears the most impaired are the few moments where he is sober. Instead of playing the over-the-top drunk or someone hopped up on cocaine, Washington demonstrates that addicts hold it together better while under the influence. Until they don't. And that's what this film is about.

I'm going to come right out and say that this is one of the best films of 2012, and no one is more shocked by that than me. True, I was looking forward to seeing it, mainly because it was filmed in my neck of the woods and my husband spotted Denzel at the hospital during filming. But I was blown away by all of the performances and by the spot on direction of this film.

New to me is Kelly Reilly, the British actress who plays the junkie Nicole. Most of her onscreen time is with Washington and man, does she hold her own. If Jessica Chastain had a baby with Amy Adams, it would be this girl. I think we will be seeing a lot of her in the future.

Always a favorite of mine, Bruce Greenwood does a phenomenal job of playing one of the only people with any ethics at all in the film. He's strong and caring. But even he is pushed to cross a line at the end of the film that he probably never thought possible.

John Goodman isn't in the film very much, but he's captivating when he is. Always enjoyable, he makes even the drug dealer Harling Mays seem like a lovable teddy bear.

Don Cheadle is a bit more complicated. Is he completely unethical or can even he be disgusted by the absolute amoral condition of Whip Whitaker?

If you haven't seen Flight, you need to watch it right now. You may not want to view it under the same conditions that I did, though. As I said before, I watched in on a flight with a lot of turbulence. Right about the time Denzel cancels the beverage service on his flight, my pilot does the same. It was so intense that when my son tapped my arm to tell me something, I screamed and nearly jumped out of my seat.

You can watch it in a variety of places right now: You can purchase it or rent it from my Amazon store using the banner at the top of this page or you can download it from iTunes here:

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