Most of Flight is slow-paced character development, but it contains a few scenes that make your heart thump. In one of them, Denzel Washington’s character, Captain Whip Whitaker, tries to pull his passenger jet out of a nosedive while the passengers scream in terror. In another, the same character, an alcoholic, discovers a mini-fridge full of liquor bottles in a hotel room and struggles with the temptation to break the week of sobriety he has achieved so painstakingly.
Both scenes made me lean forward in my seat, but I found the second more agonizing than the first. Although more than a hundred lives would have been lost if the plane had crashed, Whitaker’s soul was at stake while he stared at the glowing liquor bottles, and I felt invested in the condition of his soul.
It’s a credit to the talents of Washington and the director, Robert Zemeckis, that I cared so much about what choice the character would make. The movie they made together is rare in Hollywood these days – an intimate, realistic examination of a life.
Whitaker lands the malfunctioning plane with minimal loss of life by employing strange maneuvers that make his co-pilot scream in confusion, as well as terror. The scenes that precede and follow the flight explain how he could think clearly while the plane plummeted so fast that the altimeter was a blur. Before the flight, he snorts lines of coke, takes a puff of a joint and empties a few beers in his hotel room before strutting down the tarmac in his snazzy uniform. While addressing the passengers, he mixes a few mini-bottles of vodka with orange juice out of their view. It’s not that being drunk or high helped him control the plane. He’s just used to staying calm in the midst of horrible turbulence, thanks to his drug addictions. It’s a thrill for him.
After waking up in the hospital with a mild concussion, Whitaker decides to become clean. His drug dealer, played by John Goodman with his characteristic obscene energy, offers him various substances from his woven handbag, but he turns them down. He holes up at his family farm, where he collects liquor bottles from his hiding places and empties them down the sink. While he does this, we see clues that he comes from a proud line of pilots and that his addictions have shoved his wife and teenage son out of his life.
At first, Whitaker is a hero, but before long word gets out that blood tests taken at the hospital showed he was drunk and high, meaning he could be charged with manslaughter and spend the rest of his life in prison. Ironically, this revelation sends him back to the bottle.
Meanwhile, his union representative and a lawyer from the airline (Don Cheadle) ask him to play along in their strategy to obliterate the toxicology report and blame the empty mini-bottles found on the plane on a flight attendant who died in the crash. Whitaker has to make a decision: will he stop lying to himself and others about his alcoholism, or will he tell the truth and face the consequences?
Apart from the crash scene, most of the movie takes place in mundane settings such as a hospital, Whitaker’s ancestral farm and corporate meeting rooms, but Washington’s performance takes the movie to the extreme lows and highs of human experience – especially the lows. The movie is so devoted to the character of Whitaker that it wouldn’t work if the Washington didn’t manage to make him so realistic and nuanced, as well as hinting at an underlying decency that makes us root for him.
The ancestral farm that Whitaker exiles himself onto may be mundane, but Washington’s performance makes it powerful through the contrast of its pride and simplicity – the rotary phone, the black and white family photos on the walls, the old Cessna plane in the garage – with his decadent behavior.
Zemeckis also deserves credit for the quality of the movie. This is the first live action film he’s made since Cast Away, which was similar in the way it focused on one character developing in response to trial and isolation. Most of his direction is straightforward and concise, like a well-written novel that lets its fascinating characters keep the pages turning. A few times, though, he uses flourishes that become even more powerful in contrast to the conservative shots around them, such as a zoom and shake of the camera when Whitaker snorts a line of coke before the flight, or a long close-up of a mini-bottle of liquor that Whitaker might or might not take. The emphases these shots place show what Zemeckis thinks is important in the film: the moral choices Whitaker makes.
Flight‘s budget of $31 million was anemic by Hollywood standards. According to the film’s Wikipedia page, Zemeckis and Washington took large pay cuts in order to make the film. They must have really believed in the project to make that sacrifice. Judging by what ended up on the screen, they were wise to have faith in the material, but their devotion itself is what pushed the film into the upper stratosphere of quality.