“Flight” is based on a fascinating premise that is so much more thought-provoking then the film that while you’ll be drawn to Denzel Washington’s horribly magnetic performance, it’s hard to stop thinking of its missed potential. The film hinges on a huge moral dilemma that we understand immediately, but then filters it through a character study so that there is really only one way to resolve it. This is the essence of simplifying a narrative, one which is nonetheless powerful and affecting but fails to break any new ground.
Denzel Washington plays Whip Whitaker, who wakes up with a plane-sized hangover, does some coke to get right, and then goes to his work, which just happens to be as a pilot on a commuter flight. It’s a horrifying scenario that puts the audience against him almost from the start, and yet the way we are both charmed and repulsed by Whip’s devil-may-care attitude is evidence of how well an actor like Washington can humanize such a man.
Then the unthinkable happens. With hardly a warning, and with no connection to his abilities, Whip’s plane locks up and begins a horrendous nosedive towards the ground at speeds that will insure bloody disaster to both those in the plane and on the ground. He responds by staying cool and improvising an impressive solution that miraculously lands the plane with only six casualties, becoming a well-deserved hero. But when his blood tests reveal his alcohol and drug use, he is forced to face the consequences of his choices and decide whether to come clean or not.
Or the movie could just features redundant scenes painful of alcoholism.
Whip’s retreat from the truth could have possibly worked as a lens to see moral responsibility on a personal level and the reaction to the pressure of such a situation, but the movie pursues Whip’s addictions and vices so closely that there is virtually nothing else it can say about the subject. Scenes come and go featuring actors who interact with Whip, mostly trying to get him to stop his drinking, but none seem interested in exploring what this ethical choice means on a grander scale. Don Cheadle and Bruce Greenwood are good, but basically non-entities as they try and fail to halt Whip’s increasing dependence on alcohol, with the only thematically relevant subplot being a woman, Nicole, (Kelly Reilly) whose own addictions offer a dim parallel to his.
The way “Flight” posits these other threads is strangely amateurish. There is an investigation into the mechanical failure of the craft that is virtually unseen until the end, and a whole section of the beginning follows how Nicole ended up at the hospital where she meets Whip, which feels odd given how she basically walks out on him later. John Goodman shows up (To the tune of “Sympathy For The Devil, no less) as a jovial drug-dealing associate who offsets the tone of the film like a clown at a funeral. A later scene with Whip’s recovering co-pilot that appears to be getting into some actual ruminations of Whip’s questionable actions on board also proceeds to take a unhinted religious direction that is as unintentionally funny as it is frustrating.
Without Washington’s performance as an anchor, the whole thing would come across as preachy and too contrived, but as Whip Whitaker undergoes his stages of regret, denial, and finally redemption, we are truly rooting for him. It’s painful to see a man so deep in self-denial that he no longer even questions why he drinks, and the revelation that his wife and kid don’t like him at all is a quiet blow to the gut that makes his problem feel pervasive, even if the manner in which it’s conveyed is annoyingly blunt.
The scene that best encapsulates this problem with subtle storytelling over emotional ham-fistedness occurs while Whip is standing in the corridor of the plane giving the pre-flight talk to the passengers. He gives a confident and reassuring welcome, the captain you can’t help but like and trust, while secretly emptying single serving vodka bottles into a carton of orange juice behind the wall. The film could have had him do this in the bathroom, show him hiding his problem, but doing it in such a ironic situation communicates his moral failings so obviously (And on top of that aforementioned hangover scene) that there is no ambiguity of character.
In the end, “Flight” becomes too grounded in one individual’s struggle to do what’s right, rather than soaring unto new heights to ask wider questions of whether a hero deserves redemption even after their failings, or how even in the face of miracles, we still aren’t free of responsibility so long as we have a choice.