Starring: Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle, Kelly Reilly, Brian Geraghty and John Goodman
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Runtime: 138 mins. Reviewed in Jan 2013
For many decades, despite some roles as villains, Denzel Washington has been an American icon of decency and values (although he did win an Oscar in 2001 for his corrupt cop in Training day). In Flight he is a much more ambiguous character – and has received another Oscar nomination.
For the first twenty minutes, it looks as though Flight is going to be a disaster movie, an ill-fated flight from Orlando to Atlanta, filmed with vivid intensity (quite alarming actually). Comparisons might be made with Peter Weir’s Fearless and its powerful crash scenes.
But it is not a disaster film. It is a character study of the pilot, Whip Whittaker, played by Washington, who exercises extraordinary instincts and insights to get the plane down as safely as possible. It is also a moral study since we have seen Whip and his self-indulgent lifestyle, the women, the drink, the drugs, the divorce and alienation from his family, the arrogant self-confidence (quite justified in his piloting) but carrying over into his relating to people. We know that he was drunk during the flight, much to the disapproval of his rather straightlaced co-pilot.
Whip is a media hero for what he has achieved but he keeps out of the limelight. His gauche friend (John Goodman) and his friend and union rep (Bruce Greenwood) are supportive, the former with drugs, the latter with legal aid for the impending inquriry and the revelation that he was drinking on the plane. Don Cheadle is the hotshot, shrewd lawyer brought in to smooth things along.
In the meantime we have been introduced to an alcoholic and addict, Nicole (Kelly Reilly with an American accent), who has collapsed after injecting high-powered heroin and is in the same hospital as Whip. What could have been just another girlfriend role (and in many ways it is) becomes much stronger as Nicole tries to deal with her demons with a job and AA meetings and friends.
But, Whip is erratic, throwing out the alcohol in the house and then stocking up again. The officials find him completely unreliable. Whip is trying to save his life and his job, visiting his co-pilot who is a devout Christian, visiting his family with his son pushing him out of the house, and visiting one of the cabin crew, a good friend, whom he asks to lie for him.
Because of Denzel Washington’s screen image and the increasingly disreputable character he is playing, the audience finds itself torn between the truth and wanting him to be able to get a life. Eventually, he has to appear before the enquiry (presided over by the always effective Melissa Leo).
As the film proceeds, especially from the AA sequence where Nicole feels supported but Whip leaves as a man is testifying about the lies and deceits in his life, it becomes more moralizing. By the end, it is highly moralizing, which may be a bit too didactic for audiences who want their messages conveyed more subtly.
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