Flight movie review: A drunk trying to earn his wings

On November 13, 2012

Film: Flight

Release Date: Nov 2

Studio: Paramount Pictures

Grade: A-

His intoxicated breath skewers from his mouth and taints the surrounding air. Before the engines ignite, he satisfyingly chucks three empty vodka bottles into the trashcan. The aircraft ascends through jarring turbulence, but he remains calm and composed. He's the most drunk and stoned person on a plane hauling 102 souls on board - and he's the pilot.

Buzz or no buzz, Capt. Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington, Safe House) is the best pilot in the air - or so he claims. Whitaker's mind is shrouded with so much confidence that the morning before takeoff he binged in alcohol, had sex with his stewardess, Katrina Marquez (Nadine Velazquez, The League), and snorted a line of cocaine. He's a divorced alcoholic who neglects his only son and drowns in beer to escape his garbage life; yet, he's responsible for the lives of people hovering above the clouds whenever he wears his uniform.

But near the beginning of Flight, he wakes up at a life-defining moment - his co-pilot, Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty, ATM), loses navigational control and sends the plane into a treacherous nosedive. The cabin quakes, the passengers panic and Evans is petrified beyond his understanding. Whitaker remains buckled down. He apprehends the plane upside-down and lands it to safety.

This is one of the most terrifying flight scenes in cinema history. The camera lingers on eye level with the passengers, absorbing the audience into the descending plane. The scene is shaky, but remains coherent enough to show spectators what's happening and why, with Evans' fear enhancing the terror. The scene depends on gripping suspense to make the crash believable rather than blood and explosions.

 The crash's aftermath sets up the rest of Flight, which follows Whitaker's own descent into an alcoholic Hell. He was drunk that day, and he knows it. But he also believes he was the sole reason for the lives that were saved.

"No one could have landed that plane like I did," Whitaker says.

The audience believes it, too. All test simulations of the incident are failed, proving Whitaker is the only pilot alive who could've mustered the miracle.

But all celebrations are halted once blood samples prove Whitaker's intoxication during the flight, which would earn him a life sentence. Everything rests on the rebuttal of his assigned lawyer, Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle, House of Lies). Cheadle is effortlessly plays a cool and collected attorney who kicks all jokes aside and speaks matter-of-factly. Also on the defense team are Whitaker's ex-colleague Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood, Young Justice), and an amenable hipster, Harling Mays (John Goodman, Argo), who serves as a stand-in medic at a most crucial time.

Flight is the second film this year that deals with the burdens of alcoholism - the first being Paul Thomas Anderson's persevering The Master. The latter film was purposely ambiguous, which turned out to be a handicap. The Master leaned on its ambiguity like a crutch, while Flight relied on dialogue, inner-human conflict and the Washington's veteran acting to tell a better and more compelling tragedy. Whitaker is a guy to root for.

Washington is notoriouslyone the most solid actors in the business; rarely does he deliver a performance short of perfection. He develops his Whitaker character into an anti-hero, relying on facial expressions and tone of voice rather than overacting and exaggerating emotions like Joaquin Phoenix did in The Master.

Writer John Gatins (Real Steel) has always focused on writing character studies, like the coming-of-age urban story in Coach Carter and the caring girl nursing a horse in Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story. Flight is his greatest accomplishment yet, because he shows the effects of alcoholism as the disease it really is. His characters don't react to trolley the plot along, but respond instead for personal gain or loss.

This is the first live-action film by director Robert Zemeckis (A Christmas Carol) since Cast Away in 2000. He has beenusing his talents in stop-motion animation with films like The Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol instead. Flight shows he hasn't lost his touch, and he can make whatever kind of film he wants to at any time.

Step aside, The Master, Flight is one of the best movies of the year.


Email: arts@ubspectrum.com

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