In Robert Zemeckis’ absorbing but overlong Flight, Denzel Washington’s “Whip” Whitaker consumes so many alcoholic beverages it’s a wonder it hasn’t resulted in a nationwide liquor shortage.
While he isn’t drowning his sorrows (divorce, separation, assorted anguish) in alcohol–or cocaine– or any other recreational drug, Whip is a somewhat respected airline pilot whose penchant for imbibing (discreetly) while on the job has been consciously ignored by his colleagues. In the first (and best) section of the film, Whip is rousing himself with a dash of cocaine after what was undoubtedly a night of drinking, drugging and sexual combustion with a flight attendant (sleep not included). After an initial bout of turbulence while piloting a flight to Atlanta, he takes a nap (after mixing himself a drink)—then disaster hits. The plane enters a dive, the co-pilot loses control, and Whip throws out the rule book to guide the plane to a forced landing in which miraculously, 96 out of 102 people survive. It is a harrowing section, comparing favorably with Zemeckis’ earlier Castaway in its depiction of onboard terror.
While Whip’s actions are initially celebrated by the media, there are hints the other shoe may drop…regarding his blood alcohol level, a suspicious co-pilot–and Whip’s initial instincts are to cut and run. And then Flight becomes a modern “Lost weekend,” as Washington’s Whip struggles repeatedly—and exhaustingly–for everyone— with an alcohol addiction which he first denies, while making the acquaintance of a fellow troubled drug addict (Kelly Reilly) who grows to love him, but is afraid of free-falling back to her own addiction. Bruce Greenwood and Don Cheadle are on hand as concerned friend and legal counsel respectively, while John Goodman is his usual avuncular self as Washington’s best friend and drug supplier.
At the center of it all is Washington’s fiercely compelling performance as Whip. His portrait of a man who is seemingly only at peace while in the air helps move the film past a number of shall we say, implausible plot developments. For Whip is the epitome (or nadir) of the self-pitying, self-destructive alcoholic who has danced around his addiction all his life, and believes he has shielded it from anyone. As Washington’s searing portrayal makes it painfully clear, he has only deluded himself while bringing pain unto others…not through his flying, however. It becomes clear that the plane had some sort of mechanical failure, and the irony is not lost on Whip that his “defective’ pilot is the only one who could have brought the plane down. Washington makes this a Flight worth catching.