Flight 13/01/31 3:10
The screenplay, which supposedly took author John Gatins a decade to write, concerns a commercial airline pilot named Whip Whitaker, played by Denzel Washington. We first meet him in bed with a stewardess after a night of serious partying. With a few lines of cocaine to wake him up, Whip is ready to pilot a plane to Atlanta. In flight, he downs a few mini-bottles of booze to steady himself—and then comes disaster. A period of extreme turbulence is followed by a mechanical failure that plunges the jet into a nosedive. With the passengers and the rest of the crew screaming in terror, Whip somehow flips the plane upside-down, slowing the descent, righting it again in time for an emergency landing in a field. A crash that should have killed everyone on board ends up taking just six lives.
This sequence, directed by Zemeckis in spectacular fashion, is the prelude to a thoughtful and many-faceted drama. For even though Whip is a hero who has saved over a hundred people's lives, the toxicology test taken while he is unconscious in the hospital shows the level of alcohol in his blood to be practically off the charts, not to mention the cocaine. In order to save Whip's career, his old friend and current pilot union rep, played by Bruce Greenwood, hires a hotshot lawyer (Don Cheadle) to kill the toxicology report and get him through the National Transportation Safety Board hearing that is required whenever a crash results in fatalities. Unfortunately, it's essential that Whip stop drinking while he is under investigation—something he thinks he can do, but in fact can't. He's an alcoholic who can't stop drinking on his own, no matter how hard he tries.
Washington has sometimes projected a certain predictable star persona in his roles, but here he plays a much more nuanced character. Outside of the cockpit, Whip is a man unsure of himself, keeping loved ones at arm's length while often behaving in callous and insensitive ways. He hooks up with a heroin addict named Nicole, played by Kelly Reilly, in the hospital after an overdose, and his stance as the strong protector ends up being ironic, since her fragility conceals an inward stamina that makes him look weak in comparison. Washington doesn't let vanity get in the way one bit in his portrayal of this lonely aging drunk. A bit of gallows humor is provided by John Goodman as Whip's lowlife enabler and connection.
The film evolves into a rich portrayal of one of the addict's most notable traits: denial. His world may be collapsing around him, but Whip will continue to insist that everything's OK. And one of the cleverest ironies in the story is something that is never actually said out loud—the film lets us consider the possibility, without overtly raising it, that being high may have provided the pilot the boldness and nerve needed to perform his incredible landing.
Flight uses the metaphor of soaring high above to reflect on the pain of having to come down and live an ordinary life on earth.