Whip Whitaker is a man who enjoys the life. The life of a middle aged bachelor, commercially piloting his way around the globe, banging stewardesses in whatever city he happens to be laid over in. He caps the night with whiskey, vodka, beer – whatever. And jumps his morning with a line (or two) of premium blow. But inside, he’s completely vacant. An empty shell of a man, using substances to distract himself from his long ago failed marriage and current status as an absentee father.
Don’t get me wrong, the backdrop is important, but I just want to make clear that it’s not the crux. The trailer for this film in no way represents what the final film is. Flight is that increasingly rare studio film that gets everything right. Everything. It’s as fine and unexpected a cinematic achievement as I could’ve hoped to view this year.
And hell, I haven’t even described what the damn thing is about.
Early in Flight, we are privy to a horrifically suspenseful 20-minute crash sequence in which a commercial airplane malfunctions, and its heavily intoxicated pilot implements ballsy tactics to land it as safely as possible. It’s the most accurate airplane crash scene since, well, Zemeckis’ own Cast Away.
After the crash, Whip’s union rep, Charlie (played by Bruce Greenwood, a perfect actor), and Whip’s union lawyer, Hugh (Don Cheadle, another perfect one) quickly inform him that, because his toxicology report makes clear that he was fucked up while flying, he could soon be facing charges for manslaughter.
So there’s your plot: pilot with a drinking problem gets in hot water after his plane goes down. But people, believe me, that ain’t the half of it. Look closer and Flight is as daring an alcoholism drama as we’ve had in recent memory. I’ve talked about this before, but, to crudely summarize, Flight makes drinking and drug taking look fun, because, you know… it is. A lot of movies get that aspect right, but what’s far more difficult to convey is the side of addiction that takes hold once the fun stops.
In his best performance since The Hurricane, Denzel Washington proves that he still has what it takes to completely floor us. Whip is funny, pathetic, self-loathing, and in complete disarray, all things Washington executes with utter conviction. To put it simply: he goes all in here, which is something I honestly didn’t know he still had in him. At the risk of being presumptuous, I would be very surprised if another male lead acting performance trumps this one as my favorite of the year. He’s that good.
To be honest, I could dedicate paragraph upon paragraph to the acting feats in this film. From Cheadle’s fearless lawyer, to Greenwood’s compassionate friend, to Kelly Reilly’s emotionally mislaid love interest, to John Goodman’s uproarious drug dealer, to James Badge Dale’s single stolen scene in a hospital stairwell; every person involved is on point.
Perhaps the true glory belongs to Robert Zemeckis, the man responsible for such timelessness as Back to the Future and Forrest Gump. Flight marks his first live action film in 12 years, and his first R-rated picture since 1980’s Used Cars. The material for the film (as penned superbly by John Gatins) isn’t something I would expect Zemeckis to take interest in. But as he said in a recent interview, the R rating for Flight was as essential as the G rating for his Polar Express. I suppose, like most all people, Zemeckis is attracted to fine writing. And, in Flight’s case, we’ll be reaping the benefits of that for a long while to come.
That’d be a good place to end, but I have a little more. Please, don’t be turned off by Flight’s very sudden, sometimes drastic shifts in tone. There is a scene, for example, in which Whip demands to be livened up from his debilitating hangover by snorting several lines of cocaine. The scene is funny (hilarious even) until it’s not. In moments like these, I think Zemeckis is saying, “Yeah, it’s okay to laugh now, but that’s not going to stop me from showing you pain in mere seconds.” To me, that’s life. Funny to sad, hot to cold.
The opening scene of this film is memorable for a number of reasons, none of which I’ll discuss in detail. It ends on a humorous note, and has you excited for more. The final scene is, quite honestly, as touchingly devastating as anything I’ve witnessed on film this year. My point is, from opening shot to final frame, Flight has you. A