Addiction movies have a certain amount of unavoidable banality. Even Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call, New Orleans ends with an awkward tone shift towards after-school-special territory. That film, however, benefits from a point of view defiantly tied to its twisted and troubled protagonist (with the exception of a few characteristically Herzogian interludes from the perspective of observing reptiles). In Flight, Robert Zemeckis directs a broader, softer addiction movie that flirts with edginess but, in the end, concedes to moralist sentimentality.
Denzel Washington’s Whip is the kind of guy who wakes up drunk, does a line of cocaine, then drinks a little more. Our knowledge of his lifestyle precludes our knowledge of his profession – a commercial airline pilot. The reprehensible nature of this introduction is undercut by Whip’s inherently suave charm. By portraying him as a cool Keith Richards type, Zemeckis convinces us to think “I can’t believe he’s getting away with this” rather than “I can’t believe he’s doing this.”
The flight is doomed from the start with a white knuckle struggle to get above the clouds. Whip skillfully navigates the situation with a steady hand in spite of his co-pilots skepticism. We know, however, that the plane will go down and Zemeckis wisely milks the tension giving Whip some time to grab another drink and take a nap. Then it happens, the plane jerks Whip awake and alarms start sounding. He quickly grabs the controls and starts barking orders. This sequence is undeniably spectacular. Not only do we get a realistic portrayal of the chaos and panic of a plane plummeting towards the earth, but Zemeckis ties Whip to our other principle player, Nicole (Kelly Reilly), in one awesome shot. Nicole is being rushed to the hospital after OD’ing when Whip’s plane flies directly over their heads and is inexplicably (to them) upside-down.
Whip wakes up in the hospital to learn that he saved all but six of his passengers. There are flocks of TV cameras and reporters outside the hospital. He retreats to his father’s old farm in the countryside to escape the noise. He knows he was drunk when the plane went down, he knows it’s a miracle that he’s safe, and he’s aware of the enormous luck it took for him to get away with it. Upon arriving at the farm he promptly disposes of all alcohol – he has learned his lesson. However, when he is informed by a NTSB official that a toxicology report revealed his drug and alcohol use, he quickly relapses.
The addiction film lives or dies by its middle section. It is here that the film can easily get lost in the banality of the “will-he-stay-on-the-wagon?” question. Although Flight does suffer from this obligation, its purpose is largely to add complexity to the moral question at the center of Whip’s imminent hearing. It is made clear that no one could have landed the plane with as steady a hand as Whip did. The NTSB is doing some major lawyer-ing to render the aforementioned toxicology report inadmissable in order to preserve this fact. The question, then, at the center Flight is simply whether or not Whip is a good person – his consistently reckless alcoholism throughout the film is a means to muddy the waters.
Flight relies on our desperate desire to like Whip even when his actions are reprehensible. It’s possible that Robert Zemeckis is too aware of this fact. As the film builds to its third act climax, he plays with our hopes and expectations in increasingly off-putting and manipulative ways. This culminates in one shot that, however beautiful it is, plays as if Zemeckis himself walked on camera and said “gotcha!”
The shot in question is of a tiny bottle of vodka and it takes place the evening before the climactic hearing. Whip has successfully (once again) stopped drinking in preparation for this crucial hearing and he is staying in a hotel room whose mini-bar has been preemptively emptied. He quietly eats a steak dinner by himself as if it’s his last meal before execution. He enjoys an unusual peace and quiet until a strange knocking sound disturbs it. The sound is of a door leading to the adjacent room that, for whatever reason, is not latched. He investigates this empty room to find that its mini-bar is fully stocked. He takes one tiny bottle of vodka, cracks the top, then comes to his senses and sets it back on the top of the mini-bar – phew. The camera then inexplicably holds on this bottle for, maybe, 15 seconds. We are meant to hold our breath hoping he doesn’t come back for it, but then he comes back for it. His hand snatches the bottle out of the frame in slow-motion and his fate is sealed. The scene’s heavy-handedness is admittedly effective – several people in the theater gasped – but it cheapens the moment with shamelessly self-conscious campiness.
Robert Zemeckis makes crowd-pleasing films that are often prepackaged for Oscar season. Flight is no exception with it’s faux-edgy performance from Washington and its script’s high-horse moralism. The film indeed exhibits skill from all involved but adds up to not much more than well-constructed fluff.
4 out of 10