A harrowing ‘Flight’ into addiction
Updated: November 1, 2012 3:32PM
Just what the beleaguered airline industry needs: a movie that could make even the most confident flyer think twice, and again and then a few more times after that, about ever setting foot on an airplane again.
“Flight,” director Robert Zemeckis’ (“Back to the Future,” “Forrest Gump”) spectacular and devastating return to live-action after 12 years making motion-capture films, opens with what may be the single most harrowing plane crash in movie history. Two factors in the brilliantly executed, 20-minute sequence combine to make traveling by train, bus or even covered wagon seem attractive by comparison: a series of major equipment failures resulting in a power dive from 39,000 feet and a pilot who has prepared for the flight with a jolt of cocaine after an all-night booze binge.
That’s where “Flight” starts to get complicated, as an examination of the strengths and weaknesses of this particular pilot. After skillfully threading his way through a whopping storm, Capt. Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) promptly falls asleep in the cockpit (after sneaking a couple of mini-bottles of vodka into his orange juice). He’s rudely awakened by his panicky co-pilot (along with the shrieks of 102 passengers) to learn that the hydraulics system is down, the tail elevators are locked in a downward position and they are all going to die. Fortunately, either Whitaker’s natural genius for flying kicks in or the booze and drugs give him the nerve to attempt the impossible. Close to the ground, he rolls the airplane upside down to level off its flight then, with one engine after another failing, flips it right-side up again just in time for a somewhat controlled crash landing in an open field.
Whitaker wakes up in an Atlanta hospital after suffering a concussion to learn that 96 passengers survived and that he is a national hero. A few days later, he learns from an old friend (Bruce Greenwood), now representing the pilot’s union, and a plainly disapproving attorney (Don Cheadle), that a post-crash blood toxicology report revealing large amounts of alcohol and cocaine in his system could mean he’s looking at life in prison.
“Flight” doesn’t belabor the question of whether or not Whitaker is a hero or a disgrace. Whitaker plainly states that no one but him could have landed that plane and lab simulations with other pilots back him up. Instead, it shifts into a long, slow, careful study of Whitaker’s complicated character (Washington’s restrained yet emotionally intense performance is one of the best of his career) — strong, charismatic, essentially decent, yet stubbornly proud and self-destructive — as he goes into a dive just as dangerous as the one he recently survived. With an equally slim chance of leveling out. Halfway through, Whitaker’s attorney informs him that he can probably walk away from the investigation with a clean record if he stops drinking until it’s over. Whitaker whole-heartedly agrees, believing he is in control of his assorted indulgences, yet something compels him to continue. After maintaining a high-altitude balancing act most of his adult life, something appears to be pushing him to hit bottom, at an extremely high velocity.Screenwriter John Gatins (“Coach Carter,” “Real Steel”) said, in an interview with Tribute.ca, he based Whitaker’s struggle on his own personal experience of alcoholism, a fear of drinking himself to death that was only equaled by one other personal terror he incorporated into the story: his fear of flying.
Thanks for sharing, John. We’ll remember you fondly as our hearts shrivel the next time we hear “prepare for takeoff.”