Robert Zemeckis can certainly handle air disaster, as demonstrated by the authentically scary plane crash near the beginning of Cast Away, which ranks with Raiders of the Lost Ark in having one of the best ever explosive-action movie first acts. He does something similar in Flight, when after some preliminary warm-up turbulence, the plane lurches into an uncontrollable nosedive and pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) has to employ all his virtuoso skills – including inverting the plane and flying upside down – in order to break out of the descent and finally crash land, limiting the damage to only six fatalities. It’s a terrific sequence – one that puts you off flying even if you’re not flight phobic, and must forever be banned from in-flight entertainment! Moreover there is a joker-in-the-pack element as Whip is shown to be drunk on duty, having woken up with a hangover, taken a morning snifter and then raided the on-board drinks cabinet for some vodka miniatures, poured into his orange juice. But, intriguingly, the drink didn’t adversely affect his piloting ability and if anything served to improve it.
In the aftermath of the crash, Whip is hailed as a hero and becomes a media celebrity, though he suffers a complicated guilt reaction. The last thing the airline bosses want is to see Whip pilloried for his drinking, as the crash apparently wasn’t down to human error anyway and if those drinking facts emerged, they would face devastating lawsuits. Consequently union official Charlie (Bruce Greenwood) and hot-shot lawyer Hugh (Don Cheadle) go in to bat for Whip, working to shield him from any possible fallout. So everything seems sorted before the movie’s half-way point, and one begins to wonder where it can go from here – and even what kind of a movie Flight is, now that the plane-crash pyrotechnics are over, confined to that first act. But a problem soon begins to make itself felt, and that problem is…well…Whip himself, who insists on being a drunk, behaving like a drunk, sometimes in the full glare of the media spotlight, so he becomes his own worst enemy, the loose cannon firing at random.
Flight therefore is not primarily an air disaster movie after all, but an alcoholism movie, an airborne The Lost Weekend or Leaving Las Vegas, and progressively it becomes a study of Whip’s inability to get a grip. Whilst in hospital for minor injuries following the crash, he meets addict Nicole (Kelly Reilly), who’s recovering from an overdose, and they commence an unlikely relationship. As well as the drink, Whip is partial to a nose full of coke and the odd joint himself, so drink and drugs elide together as the pair drift woozily through that underworld, populated by low-life stereotypes with their leathers and tats and attitude, sometimes sidelining in porn. Whip even has his own friendly neighbourhood door-to-door drug dealer Harling (John Goodman), who with his beard, ponytail and flamboyant clothing appears to be engaged in a remake of The Big Lebowski, only this time taking the part of The Dude! One wonders why he doesn’t have the words DRUG DEALER stencilled across the back of his jacket, which would achieve about the same effect.
This heavy-handed treatment crops up throughout, such as in classic – or clichéd? – scenes where Whip pours about a hundred gallons of every denomination of booze down the sink, only to be found shortly afterwards hitting the bars and getting hammered. Yes, we get it, he’s in denial, and it becomes so acute that it impinges on him and Nicole even though she’s no stranger to all that herself. Such a character study stands or falls on the acting, and Denzel Washington is a fine actor who does a very competent job – but is he quite right for the role? It isn’t just a question of acting drunk, it’s also about showing the personality changes an alcoholic undergoes due to drink. For Whip to work within the dictates of the script, he needs to be a real Jekyll and Hyde character, and Washington’s Hyde is just a touch too Jekyllish to really carry it off. Maybe it’s because he comes over as too much of a nice guy who lacks that menacing side, and one wonders what Samuel L. Jackson or Laurence Fishburne might have made of the role.
Whatever, Whip stumbles onwards as Flight gears up for its could-only-happen-in-a-movie ending, and then the various quizzical convolutions of earlier spring into sharp focus. The film ultimately crystallises as a very Hollywood version of the difficult issues surrounding alcoholism and drug taking – with a nice bit of ‘disaster movie’ tacked on the front. It purposefully strives for those hip Goodfellas-style red-eyed coke-snorting moments, but somehow misses the mark and loses its way due to a questionable approach and storyline. For the real deal try The Lost Weekend, Leaving Las Vegas, Drugstore Cowboy, Trainspotting or A Scanner Darkly.