I feel I was mislead. I thought Flight – with ads that feature bright bold Eurostile type and contrails – would sport a lot more, y’know, planes. Instead, I got a two hour character study on an alcoholic coping with a controlled crash landing. A fling with a beautiful member of the flight crew opens the film, highlighting the crazy life of Captain Whip Whitaker (Denzel) who gets down with booze and up with a line of cocaine in short order. He’s a sloppy mess as he comes into the plane, reeking of gin, but when his vessel begins to fall apart around him, he sobers up quick. Through this we learn that Whitaker may be some kind of Superman, only fully operational when completely doped up. Of course, it’s not long before reality starts to catch up with him.
The movie makes a big deal about smaller numbers. We focus on the six fatalities of that doomed flight, rather than the ninety-six living. We focus on the single pilot rather than his five crew. We believe that Captain Whip Whitaker has a singular ambition amongst his many nuances – alcohol – and will stop at little or nothing to contain the demon. The trauma happens quickly and we watch as Whitaker stumbles through its wake before a federal review board begins to ask him some tough questions. An old friend (Greenwood, who should be in every movie), a conniving lawyer (Cheadle), and a drug addict (Reilly) orbit the good Captain as they try to steer him from his own personal descent, a flight he’s obviously not ready for. Whitaker drinks. He drank before the flight, he drank during the flight, he drank after the flight and throughout the film. Conventional treatments just won’t do it for him and when toxicology reports indicate that his condition may have been the single determining element that doomed the flight, he even tries to apologize for his habit. He dumps out his liquor only to show up with gallons more in the next scene. You may even know one of these people.
There are parts that don’t feel right, beyond the serious themes here. John Goodman feels out of place in every scene he’s in, as if some misapplied comic relief, leading to a recovery late in the film that borders on comically bad. The bald-faced preaching on alcoholism, even in the opening notes of an AA meeting, also seems weird. Aren’t we seeing enough of a man destroying himself on screen, illuminating his destroyed relationships and continuing to destroy more? Do we really need the message nailed home that substance abuse is just this absolutely terrible thing? We get it. The movie even flirts with the idea of fate, as if a deity either damned those six souls or saved those other ninety-six, lit to no resolve. Flight is really just happy with presenting you a man imploding in slow-motion.
For all its heavy-handedness, it’s nice to see Bob Zemeckis return to live-action. His “animated” films brought us creatures that were filled with personalities and framed in moving corpses. Flight presents a man that’s dead inside, but shows sparks of life on the outside.