“Flight” Movie Review

     Once again, Denzel Washington proves he is one of the best actors of this generation in Robert Zemeckis’ new film “Flight”.  This is quite a departure for Zemeckis, who hasn’t made a live action film in 12 years, instead sticking with motion capture technology creations such as “The Polar Express” and “Beowulf”.  Of course having created such successful big budget fare as “Forrest Gump” and “Cast Away”, you had to figure Zemeckis had something good up his sleeve with this one and he certainly has delivered.  “Flight” begins as a tragic, pulse pounding thrill ride through the air, but then settles into a more gritty and realistic tone normally reserved for arty independent films.   “Flight” contains several outstanding performances and develops several key characters to the crucial point where audience members will become invested and therefore will be emotionally attached to their fate.  Combined with skilled direction by Zemeckis and an engrossing script by John Gatins, Washington delivers his best and most complete performance in years.

     The story follows an early morning routine flight to Atlanta, piloted by Captain Whip Whitaker (Washington) and carrying “102 souls” as one of the characters puts it.  When we first meet Whitaker, we are immediately given a crash course in the type of life he is leading, which is to say a scary thought considering his profession.  He has just concluded a sleepless night of sex, cocaine, and alcohol in a hotel room with one of his flight attendants.  Before we know it, Whitaker is climbing into the cockpit of a commercial airliner and takes off on what is supposed to be a short 52 minute flight.  It is at this point, the audience is treated to one of the most harrowing depictions of air travel gone wrong that has ever been committed to film.

     The set up is already there when you know the pilot is intoxicated, but as they take off, the plane is met with severe weather and turbulence that forces Whitaker to fly the plane safely out of it.  This initial problem is extremely intense and when it ends, you (and the passengers on the plane) want to believe the worst is now over.  In a matter of minutes, something goes wrong with the plane and it suddenly goes into a nose dive.  Now we know Whitaker is clearly a functioning alcoholic, but when he and his crew find themselves in the worst of circumstances, Whitaker is the one who exhibits calm and reverts to his training and skill to maneuver the plane back to safety.  Whitaker’s considerable skill allows him to crash land the plane in an open field with minimal casualties and he is immediately portrayed as a hero.

     It is later found through a blood test that Whitaker had a significant amount of alcohol and drugs in his system while flying and the airline union is forced to defend their pilot in order to keep him from being criminally charged.  Much of the film is dedicated to the efforts his attorney, Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle), and union rep, Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood) go through to keep him sober long enough to get through a pending federal hearing.  Earlier this year, John Goodman appeared in “Argo” and provided much needed comic relief to a film about the Iran Hostage Crisis and he succeeds in doing basically the same thing here as Harling Mays, Whitaker’s go to drug dealer.  The supporting players are excellent throughout and together they make quite an ensemble cast.

     Unlike his Oscar winning role in “Training Day”, Washington never plays his character, Whip Whitaker, over the top and avoids the many opportunities to ham it up in front of the camera.  Instead, he chooses to play this role more in the realm of his work in Spike Lee’s “He Got Game” as Jake Shuttlesworth.  In that film, he too had created problems with his teenage son and was intent to overcome them at any cost.  Here he exhibits many of the same emotions as he realizes how his considerable drinking problem has ruined his marriage, his relationship with his son, and now stands to significantly effect his career and put him in prison.  In several scenes, Washington plays the role in a way I believe only he can.  There’s a certain calm he portrays during extraordinary circumstances, seemingly able to constantly bury his emotions and get through the very worst of situations.  The only problem he can’t overcome is the one which is the source of his addiction and the cause of the endless turmoil in his life. I think he befriends a heroine addict, Nicole (Kelly Reilly) he meets in the hospital because he sees his own problems in her and likely wants to use her as a test case for himself.  Maybe he feels if she can be saved and return to a life of normalcy, then so can he.  Perhaps he needs her just to feel as though he is still above someone in life as seen in his constant state of denial.  If I had to compare these scenes to another film, it would definitely by “Leaving Las Vegas”, but make no mistake, Washington makes this role his own.

     “Flight” checks in as one of the many great films of 2012 and is certainly worthy of awards consideration.  First and foremost, Washington’s performance may go on to garner the majority of the film’s accolades but I wouldn’t be surprised to see a directing nod for Zemeckis, as well as writing recognition for Gatins.  These filmmakers have culled their immense talents and created an original story that is well thought out and well acted.  Most importantly, it’s a story everyone will feel emotionally, if for no other reason than the fact most of us do fly from time to time.  The story also explores a very human struggle with addiction and how many lives can be touched when things get out of control.  GRADE: A