By Susan JAMES
If you’ve seen the coming attractions for “Flight,” director Robert Zemeckis’ new film starring Denzel Washington, you might think it’s a modern riff on the old John Wayne classic, ‘The High and the Mighty.” Demon-haunted, booze-soaked pilot manages miraculous landing of a crippled airplane in spite of overwhelming odds. If you did think that, you would be wrong. Instead “Flight” turns out to be an overly long exploration of one man’s alcohol-fueled pity party with very few highs and nothing mighty about it.
Captain “Whip” Whitaker (Washington) flies planes for a regional airline in the southeast U.S. A competent pilot, he prides himself on his ability to combine sleepless nights and friendly flight attendants with endless rounds of alcohol and cocaine. Divorced and estranged from his ex-wife and teen-aged son, his closest friend is his drug dealer, played by a frenetic John Goodman. During a routine flight from Orlando to Atlanta with 106 people on-board, Whip’s plane begins to crumble in the air. While all about him default to panic or prayer mode, a calm and resourceful Whip rolls the plane on its back, pulls it out of a nose dive and lands it in a Georgian field with a loss of six lives.
A routine blood test in the hospital where he is rushed with serious but not life-threatening injuries shows that he was drinking just before the crash. Union representative and old friend Charlie Anderson (played by Bruce Greenwood) recognizes that lawsuits loom if the news gets out and hires a hotshot lawyer, an abrasive Don Cheadle, to suppress the test results and defend Whip during the NTSB investigations. What Whip simply cannot understand is why his remarkable save of 92 passengers on a disintegrating airplane is of less importance to the investigators, the press and the world at large than his possible sobriety.
All of the most exciting action in the movie takes place in the first 15 minutes when Whip wrestles a dying aircraft into a spectacular crash landing. Arguably his calm in the face of almost certain calamity could be credited to the drugs in his system. His addictions are certainly never shown to interfere with the performance of his duty and the implication is that they may have heightened it. This makes the guilt that Whip is ultimately forced to face lack credibility. The six people on-board who died didn’t die because of him but because they were flying in a poorly maintained plane.
Whip isn’t a very likeable guy and there is little attempt on the part of screenwriter John Gatins to make the audience care about him. The film never asks the important questions. Why is Whip into drugs? What’s going on in his head? Who is this guy? A heroin-addicted junkie played by Kelly Reilly is thrown into the mix momentarily so that Whip can save her from a predatory landlord but that’s just not enough to make us care whether he gets sober or not.
In the end, the film is a dreary sermon on the perils of alcohol and drug addiction attached to the subversive idea that a planeload of people survived because their pilot was not only mighty but high as well.
See you at the movies!