A hybrid of The High and the Mighty and Leaving Las Vegas, the drama Flight is the kind of movie that could have easily slid into moralizing half-assed melodrama in lesser hands, but as handled by talented veteran director Robert Zemeckis (his first feature since the back-to-back releases of Cast Away and What Lies Beneath in 2000) it stands as a powerful look at addiction.
It also gives Denzel Washington an opportunity to exercise his considerable acting chops as Whip Whitaker, a commercial airline pilot who becomes a national hero when he pulls off the miraculous crash landing of a 737, saving the lives of 96 of the 102 people aboard. (Some will be disappointed to find this is the only action scene in the movie, but considering it might do for frequent flyers what Jaws did for beach parties, this is probably for the best.)
What few people realize, however, is that Whitaker not only got drunk and stoned with one of the flight attendants the night before, but had been drinking, snorting, and toking for four straight days prior, as well as on that fateful morning. Hell, he even mixes himself a screwdriver in the galley after take-off. From that point on, Whitaker begins working overtime to dodge prosecution, reporters, and sobriety, and not always in that order. To call him his own worst enemy is a severe understatement.
Washington is fearless as he navigates Whitaker’s downward spiral into self-inflicted oblivion, walking a fine line between the character’s arrogant narcissism and his complete lack of self-control, and somehow earning audience sympathy while behaving like a total bastard.
Zemeckis and screenwriter John Gatins don’t soft-peddle the damage sustained by Whitaker and those around him — the recovering junkie (Kelly Reilly) he becomes involved with and starts to drag down with him, his ex-wife and estranged son, and his the colleagues (Don Cheadle and Bruce Greenwood) who need him to sober up just long enough to lie his way through an NTSB hearing. Each gives a fine supporting performance, as do John Goodman, Nadine Velazquez, and Melissa Leo.
Buckle up — it’s a bumpy ride.