Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is an alcoholic. How do I know? Because throughout the duration of Robert Zemeckis‘ new film Flight there is hardly a scene that goes by where he doesn’t have a drink in his hand or isn’t slurring his words and falling over with a lit cigarette dangling from his fingers. Some may describe this as a reality of alcoholism, I call it redundant and boring. Yes, Washington is fantastic in this role, as he is in most every character he inhabits, but the repetitive nature of this film and its obvious outcome alleviates all suspense and/or drama once the opening and truly thrilling moments have passed.
We’ll get to those thrilling moments in a second, but what I’ve neglected to tell you so far is that Whip is not only an alcoholic, he’s also a commercial airline pilot and this morning he has a flight to Georgia.
The film begins as he wakes up next to his lovely stewardess Katerina (Nadine Velazquez) after the two spent a long night together of drinking, snorting cocaine and whatever else you can imagine.
Whip’s mood is thrown for a loop early as a phone call from his ex-wife sets him on edge, though it’s nothing a quick line of that powdery white stuff can’t balance out. Next it’s time to get dressed and head out for an exterior check and into the captain’s seat next to his new co-pilot, and devoted Christian, Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty).
It’s raining heavily outside and systems have been checked as well as any alcohol-fueled pilot with a sniff of cocaine can manage and we’re ready for take off. After a bumpy start, trouble strikes a few hours later as a result of a systems failure and Zemeckis delivers some truly harrowing minutes of intensity as Whip does everything he can to land the plane safely and save those on board. This includes watching the plane go into a flat-out nosedive before it is inverted and ultimately comes to rest safely in a field with limited casualties. The worst is over for most, but a toxicology report on Whip reveals what we already know and the rest of the film is spent exploring his addiction to alcohol and his attempts, and those of his union, to cover up his mistakes.
Tonally the film rarely climbs out of the bottle as we’re treated to scene after scene of Whip getting drunk, followed by Whip getting sober, followed by Whip looking into a bar only to see the news reports of what he’s done and walking away, followed by him drinking in his car, drinking in his living room, drinking in his car and drinking in his car. His moments not drinking are spent interacting with the varied cast of supporting actors.
First there’s Bruce Greenwood playing a pilot’s union representative whose #1 concern is clearing Whip’s name for both political and personal reasons. Don Cheadle is given a tiny role as Whip’s attorney and it’s a role that could have been far more interesting had their interplay been explored further rather than devoting so much time to the meaningless back-and-forth between Whip and fellow addict Nicole played by Kelly Reilly.
Whip meets Nicole while recovering in the hospital. She is there due to an accidental overdose, and has decided to get herself cleaned up. With no place to go, however, Whip takes her in as he hides from the media on his family farm. I’m sure you can figure out how the drama between the two plays out as it doesn’t take much imagination, but this portion of the story would have been best left within the confines of the hospital walls. In fact, a great stairwell scene between Whip, Nicole and James Badge Dale playing a cancer patient, says all that really needs to be said with regard to what the story is trying to get across by showing this confluence of characters and marks the most dramatic portion of the picture.
The most curious performance and character, however, comes from John Goodman as Whip’s supplier Harling Mays. The film shifts dramatically whenever Goodman appears as he seems to be channeling The Big Lebowski‘s Walter Sobchak for the few scenes he appears. His introduction is like a slap across the face and almost feels as if something went wrong with a reel change as one minute we’re watching Whip discuss his diagnosis with the doctors and another we hear the Rolling Stones blaring through the speakers and Harling comes stomping in with drugs, booze and cigarettes.
The first time Harling shows up it’s jarring, but the last time we see him I expected a scene five minutes later with a monkey in the kitchen, a tiger in the bathroom and Zach Galifianakis passed out in his underwear. I can’t tell if his character was meant to be funny, tragic or dramatic, but one thing is for certain, it doesn’t fit in a film that can’t decide if it wants to be safe, thrilling, melodramatic or goofy.
The first half of Flight is outstanding. It’s thrilling and Washington once again presents a character you immediately gravitate toward. The scenes in the plane are intense and the drama is felt throughout. However, once all that goes away and the actual narrative of the film kicks in it becomes a slog for the remaining 90 minutes as Whip and Nicole have their moments and concern over Whip’s ability to remain sober dominates every other aspect of the story. Outside of the plane crash, this is just another by-the-numbers film about addiction with brief moments of silliness provided by Goodman and I just couldn’t stay with it.
What strikes me the most is the realization that Whip is simply not a character I care about. He’s chosen a path of destruction with no sign of remorse or caring for those around him. Yes, he has a problem and perhaps deserves our sympathy, but we must remember this is a movie and above all else it must give us reason to care for a character in spite of his/her flaws and Flight fails to do that by dedicating so much time to boozing and drugging and a final hotel scene I consider deplorable for all involved from a character to a story standpoint, leaving the film to wither and die from there on out.