Tragedy strikes on a commercial flight to Detroit when captain Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) and co-pilot Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty) unintentionally direct their plane into a vicious rainstorm. In what may be the most harrowing sequence to be in theaters this year, the plane becomes introverted, and Whip – hung-over and high on cocaine from the night before with colleague Katerina Marquez (Nadine Velazquez) – acts composed and with poise under pressure.
Before the lives of everyone on the plane are taken, Whip, in nothing short of a miracle, lands the plain, saving 100 of the 106 people on board. Placed in a hospital after suffering a concussion during the landing, Whitaker wakes up to expect his courageous actions to be applauded.
It’s not long before a procedural investigation is launched – revealing his ongoing bout with alcoholism and drug addiction. Is a man who saved the lives of many from a plane that had technical difficulties, but had alcohol in his system at the time of the flight, responsible for the manslaughter of those six individuals (one of which was Katerina)?
In what is Denzel Washington’s most devastating and resonate performance since The Hurricane (expressing inner emotion every step of the way), Whip is emblematic of many men and women who are constantly struggling with this persistent disease. He’s built up a tolerance to 10-15 drinks and snorting a few lines of coke, then proceeding to operate an aircraft carrier. Most of us couldn’t do that even at more lucid moments.
Sympathetic as he initially may be, Flight wears its convictions thin after 138-minutes of essentially the same sequence, over and over again. It resembles a mans hardships with alcoholism, but unlike Drugstore Cowboy – perhaps the most heartbreaking and honest film on drug addiction that demonstrates the agony of it all – Robert Zemeckis shoots an excess of drug consumption with not much weight behind them as Whip take pleasure in its habitual consumption of alcohol.
Once the film gets rolling – and Whip is hired an attorney played by Don Cheadle – it works. Without its uniformly masterclass of a cast (from John Goodman as the drug dealer best friend to Kelly Reilly as fellow addict who befriends Whip), Flight would be just another remedial exercise on the consequences and severities of addiction.
Thankfully, Zemeckis’ knows what he’s doing behind the helm. John Gatins’ script struggles before finally taking off, but when it does, Flight is everything it should be: powerful, sobering, and saddening. While it doesn’t hold a torch to Zemeckis’ magnum opus Forrest Gump, it’s a film with terrifying tension and devastating pathos.
Set to what is likely the best soundtrack of the 2012 – ranging from Bill Withers’ Ain’t No Sunshine to the Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter – Washington and company deliver masterful performances that belong in a better film.
Flight is a rugged, inconsistent, but gut-punching drama with – much like the life of any addict – transcendent highs and self-destructive lows.