A reckless alcoholic who happens to really know how to fly a plane gets a rather strange and romantic screen treatment in director Robert Zemeckis' uneven but entertaining Flight.
As airline-pilot Whip Whitaker—who likes vodka, beer, cocaine, cough syrup and flight attendants to excess—Denzel Washington delivers a typically great performance. The movie is excellent in the first half-hour, but just OK after that. Even though the film drags and gets a bit melodramatic or trite in spots, Washington always manages to hold it up. That's a tough task, seeing as this one clocks in at nearly 2 1/2 hours.
The film opens with Whip, hung over to the point of still being intoxicated, waking up in a hotel room. A beautiful naked woman prances around while Whip has a tense phone conversation with his ex-wife. Washington plays this scene with a wicked finesse, especially when he leers at the nude woman while arguing with the ex. It's one of those great Denzel moments. Whip then snorts a line of cocaine, dons some sexy sunglasses and a pilot's suit, and heads off to fly a jetliner with more than 100 people aboard. (Viewers will probably do a little extra scrutinizing of their pilot the next time they get on a plane.)
The flight itself is a wonder of filmmaking. Zemeckis produced a shocking plane crash before—Tom Hanks going down in Cast Away—but this sequence is among the best he has ever directed. It's amazing enough when Whip pilots the jet through a storm during takeoff. When that plane takes a dramatic plunge later in its flight, and Whip eventually flies it upside down before gliding it to a crash-landing in an open field, it's a true pulse-racer.
The crash results in minimal casualties, and Whip is initially praised as a hero. Then people start seeing the toxicology reports.
Watching Whip deal with his alcoholism and the eventual legal proceedings gets a little tedious and, at times, ridiculous. The movie hits a real low when Whip visits his co-pilot in the hospital, who happens to be pumped up on painkillers—and far too much religion. It's a scene the movie didn't need.
I'm also not a fan of how Whip conveniently picks up on an angelic heroin addict during his hospital stay. The film chickens out here, refusing to allow Washington to simply portray a man in a downward spiral. The screenwriter just had to throw in the addict with a heart of gold to make Whip more of a romantic character.
With Flight, Zemeckis and Washington have to make a somewhat despicable man worth rooting for over the course of two-plus hours. In the end, they achieve that feat, but only because Washington is almost incapable of being totally unlikable onscreen. Heck, you still liked him when his character's evil ass was getting riddled with much-needed bullets in Training Day, right?
Bruce Greenwood and Don Cheadle do good work as the union representative and the lawyer trying to save Whip's career, respectively. John Goodman gets some uncomfortable laughs as Whip's buddy and drug-supplier, while Melissa Leo makes a good impression in a short time as a crash investigator.
Flight is ultimately an OK but inconsistent movie about a man's struggle with alcoholism, with a stunning plane crash thrown in. Stay tuned for Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul in Smashed, a much-better movie on the subject of substance abuse coming soon to a theater near you.