The interesting thing going on here is that Flight is easily the most non-Zemeckisian film he’s ever made. Yes, the movie does contain one of those bravura special effects sequences he’s so known for, but the sense of whimsy so prevalent in Back to the Future and especially Forrest Gump has been totally stripped away here. Flight is frequently very, very bleak.
Flight frequently reminded me of last year’s Jason Reitman film, Young Adult, in it bravely giving us a protagonist who is in some ways a very deeply unlikeable and unsympathetic character. Hollywood movies trade in heroes or even in some cases antiheroes. They tend to not be all that interested in ambivalent people who are just a mess, sitting in the center of their quickly unraveling lives. And, many actors shy away from taking those roles for fear that the public will associate them with such unlikeability. The Annie Wilkes role in Misery finally went to the then mostly unknown actress Kathy Bates after nearly everybody in town passed on playing such a monster. Bates took the role and won an Oscar, creating one of the most memorable villains in cinema history. Take that, likeability!
Zemeckis and his star, the great Denzel Washington, have shown a tremendous amount of guts by giving us a movie that’s really a character study about a guy who is most of the time a pretty horrible person. Denzel (Isn’t it odd that some celebrities we just refer to by their first names, as if we know them?) plays William “Whip” Whitaker, a Navy veteran and commercial airline pilot. As the film opens, Whip has been up all night partying with a flight attendant. Still drunk, he snorts a couple of lines of coke to level himself off and heads to the airport.
Once airborne, the plane malfunctions and heads into a steep dive. In order to pull out of the dive, Whip rolls the plane and inverts it, flying it literally upside down. After the plane levels, he rolls it back and glides it into a field. Six people on the plane are killed, but the vast majority walk away without serious injury.
It’s a great bit of piloting and it’s a great sequence, rivaling the terrifying plane crash Zemeckis staged in Cast Away.
Whip is hospitalized with mostly minor injuries, but his blood is drawn. A toxicology report shows that his blood alcohol content is a .24, way over the legal limit to be driving a car, let alone a commercial airliner. The coke shows up in his system, as well.
That’s the wind-up and the rest of the film is largely plotless. The film is much more of a character study about how one genuinely addicted person handles being placed in a very stressful situation. Whip doesn’t handle the stress very well.
The pilots’ union hires a crack attorney played by Don Cheadle. Since Whip was drunk flying the plane, he could go to prison for the rest of his life, even though his heroic and amazing landing of the plane was miraculous in the first place. Could it be that a sober person would have been too panicked to have pulled it off?
Denzel Washington is quite simply one of the best American screen actors of the past 25 years, and he’s been given a great role to play here. I was watching Unstoppable on HBO the other day, and I was struck by how much depth he brings to much less complex screenplays. Denzel made a bunch of solid, meat-and-potatoes action films with the late Tony Scott, and he always brought nuance to roles that didn’t necessarily have that nuance in the script. Not only does he get to play about a dozen different shades of intoxication, he gets to play a troubled man in a desperate situation. And, since he’s Denzel Washington, we really do want to see Whip find redemption. I don’t want to get too specific or spoilery, but there was a scene near the end that did get me pretty misty.
Speaking of redemption, this is also one of the most overtly religious films in recent memory. Both the co-pilot and one of the flight attendants sense the hand of God in their surviving the crash. When the plane crashes, it does literally knock the steeple off a church, and it’s that church’s congregants who are the first responders pulling the injured from the wreckage. We definitely get the sense that Whip’s struggles with addiction are as much spiritual to him as they are physical.
At the end of Young Adult, we get the sense that Mavis Gary might be able to get her life together. Flight is much more overtly hopeful.