‘Flight’: Soaring and crashing

October 31, 2012

The commercials for “Flight” are a dazzling bit of bait-and-switch. If you’ve seen them, then your impression of the film is probably something along the lines of: A pilot saves an airliner from a seemingly certain crash, then must fight for his reputation against dark forces that want to scapegoat him for a mechanical failure.

Wrong.

Rather, Robert Zemeckis’ “Flight” is a character study disguised as a thriller. The near-crash is just the beginning of the story – and the story is not what you think. Instead of some dark conspiracy tale, it’s an examination of one man’s struggle with his own demons, brought into stark relief by his situation.

His name is Whip Whitaker and, as played by Denzel Washington (in what should be another Oscar-nominated performance), he’s a bit of a mess. We first see him waking up next to a woman in a hotel room to the sound of a ringing phone. As his companion dresses in the background, we see him arguing on the phone with what is obviously his ex-wife, even as he downs the dregs of last night’s beer, takes a hit off the stub of a joint the woman offers him, then hangs up the phone and tops it all off with a line of cocaine. Breakfast of champions, indeed.

And then he puts on his pilot’s uniform and reports to work flying a plane-load of people from Orlando to Atlanta. Yikes.

His copilot (Brian Geraghty) notices that he seems unnaturally cheery but Whip has that bravura confidence of the long-time drinker who knows how to brazen his way through: “Don’t tell me how to hide my drinking – I’ve been doing it for years,” he says later in the film. Once the plane is off the ground – after a shaky blast through some heavy turbulence on take-off – Whip kicks back and goes to sleep, letting his co-pilot and the auto-pilot do the work.

But he’s roused when the plane suffers a severe mechanical failure that puts it into a tailspin. Even as his copilot panics, Whip coolly tries a desperation maneuver, one that allows him to glide the plane to a softer landing than a nosedive crash.

He comes to in a hospital, hailed as a hero (think Sully Sullenberger) because only a half-dozen people died, instead of hundreds. But then the bad news arrives, in the form of Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle), a lawyer for the pilots’ union: Blood drawn from Whitaker after he was pulled from the wreckage has revealed the cocktail of alcohol and drugs that were swirling through his system.

And, at that point, there is still more than 90 minutes of movie yet to come.

Which means that writer John Gatins’ “Flight” is not a thriller about a plane crash. Rather, it’s one man’s reckoning with a serious substance-abuse problem that he’s hidden from others and lied to himself about, no doubt for decades.

As a hearing approaches before the National Transportation Safety Board, Whitaker makes the rounds of his surviving colleagues, hoping to find someone who will testify on his behalf that he wasn’t drunk on the day of the crash. He’s also meeting regularly with his longtime pal (and pilots’ union bigwig) Charlie (Bruce Greenwood), along with Lang, who gets the blood report quashed.

The pair want to help Whip come out of the hearing with his career intact. But they begin to suspect just how deep Whip’s problem may be. Try as he might, Whip can’t even heed their warning not to drink in the weeks before the hearing because, well, he’s an alcoholic.

“Flight” becomes one man’s dark journey into his own soul – and it’s a twisted trip. Because, as becomes obvious, the only thing that may have saved that plane is the fact that Whip was in an altered state – and so was able to overcome a pilot’s natural caution and honed training to try a wildly reckless maneuver that ultimately proves the difference between disaster and miracle. Just as obviously, it was the work of a high-functioning alcoholic, one who is also seen falling-down drunk when left to his own devices.

In other words, he’s not someone you want in the cockpit of an airplane – and yet he was exactly the right person at that particular moment. Now what?

That’s the conundrum at the center of Zemeckis’ film. And Zemeckis and Gatins keep the viewer guessing about where this story is headed. So, though it’s not strictly a thriller, it builds its own kind of suspense as, slowly but surely, Whip comes closer and closer to actually seeing himself for what he is.

To be sure, at 2:18, Zemeckis’ film is too long. It wastes too much time on a subplot about a drug-addicted woman (Kelly Reilly), whose story is meant to parallel Whip’s, until the two of them meet and, with luck, redeem each other.

But Washington’s performance – puffy-eyed, bluff and belligerent – keeps the viewer plugged into this man’s constant balancing act. He needs to maintain a buzz just to get straight – but not so much that anyone else notices. Once he starts drinking, however, it’s hard to stop.

Washington finds that subterranean level of desperation and lets us see it in his eyes. He also lets us see the mix of relief and sorrow when he succumbs to his addiction and gives himself over to the alcohol. He’s got strong support, particularly from Cheadle and Greenwood, as guys who admire what he’s done but who are increasingly horrified at what Whip reveals about himself without meaning to.

The plane’s disastrous malfunction in the film’s first half-hour is as exciting as anything you’ll see this year; indeed, it’s probably not for nervous flyers. It’s all your worst airborne nightmares wrapped into one harrowing scene of white-knuckle jeopardy.

“Flight” isn’t perfect but it features a great Denzel Washington performance and a story that’s unexpected. It will pull you in and shake you up – but not in the way that you assume it will.

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