It’s been several days now since I saw Robert Zemeckis’s return to live-action cinema after a hiatus of twelve years; and I still can’t get Flight out of my head. Is this the best performance of Denzel Washington’s career? I think so and that is quite saying something, because Washington is never less than good. Here though, playing ‘Whip’ Whitaker, he goes somewhere else entirely.
When we first see Whip he is just waking up in a hotel room, hung over and looking it. He finishes off a bottle on the nightstand and then does a line of cocaine that kicks him back into functioning shape. The next time that we see him he is in his pilot’s uniform, preparing to captain a commercial flight to Atlanta. This guy gives a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘high in the sky’.
I would imagine that the chances of this movie ever being shown as in-flight entertainment are non-existent. It’s bad enough that the pilot is intoxicated; but the scene which follows sees Whip actually fly the plane upside down before crash-landing and it has to be the most nail-biting since Peter Weir staged his crash for Fearless.
This is where we come up against the first of many points which should be straightforward but aren’t; indeed they are damned uncomfortable to confront. After he wakes up in the hospital it soon becomes even clearer than before that Whip has been a drug user and alcoholic for a long time. His ex-wife and his son can’t stand the sight of him and they seem to have been out of the picture for a while. He even has his own rock-and-roll head supplier in the form of John Goodman. As amusing as Goodman is, this may be a miss step on the film’s part as the character of Harling Mays is more than just a little reminiscent of Walter in The Big Lebowski.
In any case, here comes the first uncomfortable question: could Whip have stayed as calm as he did and rescue almost everybody on the flight if he hadn’t been high? Tests on ten other pilots show that not one of them could have pulled off the stunt that he does.
In the hospital he makes a connection with a young woman who has been admitted following a heroin overdose. The audience has met her earlier and she seems to be a porn actress who is struggling with a bad addiction. At this point it is obvious that the film’s title means more than one thing: both of these damaged people are in flight from themselves. However, contrary to our first impressions it is Nicole (Kelly Reilly) who is handling things better than Whip, who despite initially getting clean is soon back using again.
I don’t want to say much more other than that Whip has been blood tested whilst unconscious. His union have set him up with a frankly amoral attorney (Don Cheadle) who can make the toxicology test vanish on a technicality. Can Whip hold himself together, though? And can he go through with the moral dilemma that lands on him in addition?
John Gatis, who has received a nomination for Best Original Screenplay, seems to know whereof he speaks. There are a lot of little details here that struck me as spot on. I can’t speak from the point of flying an aircraft of course, but from the drinking side of things, perhaps more so. And despite a fine supporting cast, this is Denzel Washington’s film all the way. The manner in which he captures the false bravado of the user is excellent and makes you wonder who he studied to get this performance just right. It’s nice to see him getting a nomination for Best Actor.
All the very best of luck to him.