In Director Robert Zemeckis’s first live action film since Cast Away, his content matter is just as tragic, and coincidentally features another plane crash. Flight produces another roaring, cataclysmic trip in the sky, a feverishly palpable plunge to earth and equally as daring counteractive rescue. This time the problem for the leading man after the wreck is dealing with society, not coping without it.
Piloting the doomed plane is Whip Whitaker (a mesmerizing Denzel Washington), who within the first scene is introduced to us drowning himself in alcohol, snorting cocaine to even himself out, and having a relationship with one of his flight attendants. His lethargic body spread over the mattress, he receives a call to report for a flight in several hours. A few sniffs of white lines, a drugged out jolt from the camera, and in a subsequent shot, Whip walks out of his hotel room as a freshly starched and uniformed Pilot. Joe Cocker’s “I’m feeling all right” plays over his struts, a song used deftly again, later functioning in a more intimate way. Listen how subtly lyrics are implemented throughout the narrative, how they magnify Whip’s clutching addiction.
He flies a plane headed from Orlando to Atlanta, still intoxicated from the night before which startles his copilot, played by strict, subordinate Brian Geraghty. After escaping a rough patch of turbulence – this film is not for the faint of heart- Whip sneaks three bottles of vodka into an orange juice container and starts sipping. Suddenly the plane loses control and heads into a nosedive. Whip, calm and collected, shouts the orders, tailspins the plane upside down to level out, and then crash lands in an open field. Only several die. He is deemed a hero. But we wonder- is his composed, domineering recital of commands a product of his calculated experience in the cockpit, or the equivocating sedation of alcohol and cocaine.
The remainder of the film is where things get tricky. Toxicology reports- told to him by his appointed lawyer Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle) – show Whip to have had alcohol in his system. He may be found in court to have been ill-equipped flying a plane. Aiding his side is head of the pilot’s union Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood), relaying the trauma to a hospitalized Whip and teaming with Hugh to prep for an eventual trial. The heroics are laudable, but his condition prior is the sticking point. Are his merits in the line of death-defying duty enough to submerge questions over his physical state?
Zemeckis (whose previous performance capture work includes The Polar Express and Beowulf) is particularly fascinated with the nature of questions like these, intimately connecting us with the ethicality, the blame, the guilt, and the moral weight of someone managing an alcohol addiction and corporate, public responsibility. Nurtured by a script from John Gatins, Flight’s craft and content mingle artistically and powerfully, sincere but sometimes implausible. Regardless, the drama is rich and the implications of his story volatile.
Whip escapes to his grandfather’s farm to avoid the press, and his addiction is shown manifest in his cupboards and fridge, bottles and cans which he empties in desperation until the toxicology reports surface. It’s here, sequestered away, where he also takes in a heroin junky (Kelly Reilly) whom he met at the hospital. It’s an obscure subplot, like Whip’s domestic trouble- including his ex wife and estranged son. But it also manages to expose the spiritual connection of two addicts, communal prey to vices relentless and unforgiving. She encourages him to visit an AA meeting with her, but he feels more in danger there than in the cockpit that fateful day.
Much is hidden behind Whip’s aviators, and much is said with them off. His red eyeballs, disheveled nude blackouts, and quickly clothed sober-ups build (or rather disassemble) his character. Washington is magnetizing in that way, taking us with him on his crippling journey, promoting resentment while provoking our commiseration. John Goodman also shows up as his hippie wingman, with stashes of cocaine to set him straight, especially before the big trial. He packs the comically absurd and oftentimes game saving into his “first-aid” bag, providing improbable elixir for Whip’s damaging hangovers.
In a year in which we’ve seen legacies torn and corporate images take heat, Flight resonates in the heart of the ethical quandaries and uncertainties we face in prematurely defining acts, decisions, and people themselves. Slowly, we find the tidy “moral of the story” emerge out of the film’s dirtier corners. But in a case like this, Whip Whitaker is still an undefined man: hero, guilty, alcoholic. As French philosopher Jacques Ellul writes succinctly, “The truth about the devil is that he created ambiguity.”