Spinning out of control
You board a plane hoping, as you always do, that it’s going to be a safe flight. Once in the air, the plane hits some severe turbulence. It soon passes. You think the worst is over. Suddenly the plane dives down. All around you bags are flying into passengers. Unable to stop the dive, the pilot turns the plane upside down, allowing it level out. But it loses altitude as it approaches an abandoned field. Then, at the last moment, the pilot flips it back over, landing it on the ground and somehow saving the majority of lives onboard.
What caused the accident? How did so many survived? Was it a miracle? Who is this remarkable pilot? He’s a hero, right? Right?
So begins Robert Zemekis’s Flight as Captain Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is forced to confront the personal realities of what led to the crash. Charismatic, confident and arrogant, Whip is a man whose life is as much in the bottle as it is in the cockpit. He is drunk more than he is sober. All this is laid out in the first five minutes – no spoiler alerts here. In fact, the only person who can’t see this is Whip.
The toxicology report doesn’t lie, but his lawyer knows it can be buried. Whip is used to lying about his drinking. He sees no problem in covering up the facts. His colleagues try to help him. He falls in love with a recovering junkie who pushes to take him to AA. His ex-wife has given up trying to help. Whip insists he is okay. He asks his crew to lie for him; his whole world is entangled in a web of lies.
The posters and trailers for Flight are deliberately misleading. It’s sold as a drama with moments of comedy, but underneath all this is a rather solemn film about alcoholism and addiction. Zemekis has tried to make a provocative subject a little more watchable by introducing characters you can relate to. No matter how much Washington tortures himself you never lose sympathy for his Captain Whip Whitaker – bringing warmth and humanity to a man wrestling with his inner demons. John Goodman, who plays his big burly friend, is so fun you have to keep reminding yourself that someone so likeable is actually his worst enabler.
It’s Washington’s most meaty role in ages, but that should come as no surprise. A Christian himself, he is known for choosing characters that face moral dilemmas. Whip is a man who cannot admit the truth about who he has become. Each lie he tells requires another lie to back up his story. He finds the truth more uncomfortable than the lie. A seasoned cynic, he looks down on those who embrace faith, preferring the complexity of his lies to the simplicity of any truth. Despite the testimony of others, he refuses to confront what he is doing. Like the plane hurtling towards the ground you know there’s only one direction in which Washington’s captain is heading, hoping that his life, like the plane, has one final redemptive act.
Zemekis has made a film with more meat on its bones than his previous outings of Cast Away or Forest Gump. Flight may not have as wide an audience as these other films of his, but it still deserves to be seen. Washington’s Whip is an infallible hero, a bad man capable of doing something great, but also a sympathetic man struggling to take personal responsibility. He’s a good man who’s made bad choices. You know there is hope around the corner. The truth shall set you free.