Flight probably isn’t the film you’re expecting. For the first 15 minutes, Cast Away director Robert Zemeckis flexes his live-action, big-effects muscles but following the knuckle-whitening opener, it becomes less a dramatic thriller than a slow-paced portrait of alcohol addiction.
We meet Denzel Washington’s Captain Whip Whitaker as he wakes with a stinking hangover, a naked woman wandering out of focus in his hotel room, talking to his embittered ex-wife on the phone about child support. We then learn that Whitaker is an airline pilot, his lady friend is a flight attendant, and their next flight is scheduled to leave two hours later.
When Whitaker’s routine flight encounters a series of inexplicable mechanical malfunctions, he calmly manoeuvres the plane into a barrel roll and then a complete inversion, before guiding it into a bumpy landing. Whitaker is hailed as a hero for saving 96 of the 102 lives on board.
No one else could have landed that plane, as subsequent simulations with 10 other pilots proves. Perhaps not even a sober Whitaker could have undertaken such spur of the moment daredevilry. But does that condone his behaviour? It's an interesting moral question (perhaps not for the airline's owner, who later quips “I like this guy. He makes me wanna sniff some lines and fly a jet”). But the ominous National Transportation Safety Board, with an incriminating toxicology report in its hands, disagrees. As the subject of their subsequent investigation, Whitaker retreats to his father's empty farmhouse – and the film hits some turbulence. He gets on the wagon, then falls off it again, chasing straight vodka with a 12 pack – whilst driving. Friends old and new rally to support him – Kelly Reilly as a fellow lost soul, Don Cheadle as a hotshot Chicago lawyer. But it is in solitude that Whitaker contemplates life imprisonment, and Washington superbly conveys his inner struggle.
As with Cast Away, Zemeckis has extracted a top notch performance from his lead and Washington’s best since Training Day.
Where the film really falters is in losing the tremendous momentum of the opening scenes, instead reverting to just another tale about the problems that come with addiction (the lies, the self hatred, the rejection by family members), and the predictable search for truth.