'Flight': Denzel soars
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
It is probably more than a little reductive to say that this movie is "The Lost Weekend" with highly superior special effects. But there's something to that, honestly. Cinephiles and/or TCM-heads may recall "Weekend," the 1945 picture directed by Billy Wilder and starring Ray Milland, a harrowing drama about the downward spiral of a possibly hopeless alcoholic. In that picture, the hero, when drunk, hallucinates a bat, which is unfortunately pretty obviously one of those rubber bats that people used to think were such a panic at Halloween parties, or so I have read. In "Flight," the hero, when drunk, flies a plane upside down. And the effect is too convincing.
To clarify: Pilot Whip Whitaker, played by Denzel Washington, does not fly the plane upside down out of some party-hard whim. No, he's doing it because it's the only way he can stabilize the plane after a malfunction has deprived the aircraft of all power and put the massive thing into a plunge-and-spin that, as depicted by the filmmakers, is as horrific as any disaster ever fictionalized on-screen. Whip is a hero. His crash-landing of the plane saves a hundred lives.
There's one problem, and the audience is entirely aware of it. Whip had spent the previous night with a comely flight attendant, getting all kinds of wasted. At 7 in the morning he pulls himself together with a couple of toots of cocaine to make a 9 a.m. flight. On the plane itself he pours himself a couple of vodkas, mixing them with orange juice because that way, he thinks, or has talked himself into thinking, nobody will notice. He and his nervous co-pilot power through some very nasty weather to attain cruising altitude, and then Whip puts on the automatic pilot and more or less passes out into his controls. Once the malfunction occurs, though, it's hero time for Whip.
In the subsequent investigation, 10 pilots are put into a simulator and the scenario is played out, and all of them crash the plane and kill everyone on it. When told of this, Whip acts as if it's a given. While not exactly coming out and saying, for instance, that he's King Kong, he feels that a cover-up of a potentially damning tox report is his due. So what if he was bombed when he did it; he saved the day, and that's what counts. Except that every time there's even a suggestion of a speed bump on his road to eventual glory, he responds to it by getting bombed again. His reaction to Hugh Lang, the very slick lawyer who's going to handle his case, is typical. First he wonders why a lawyer's even necessary. Don't his actions speak louder than any circumstance surrounding them might indicate? It takes Whip a while to figure out that the lawyer, played exquisitely by Don Cheadle, wants the same thing he wants. The contrast between the characters is fascinating: Lang is very good at his job, and exceptionally goal-oriented, to the extent that it doesn't matter to him whether the goal is laudable or not. He's mastered the illusion of being in control. Whereas Whip, whenever he tries to assert some kind of control, blows it, and then goes off on a binge, which causes him to lose even more control. A hospital flirtation with a heroin addict recovering from an OD (Kelly Reilly) leads to their living together at the family retreat where Whip evades post-disaster media scrutiny and throws his denial about his addiction into poignant relief. And along he goes, lying and wheedling other people into lying for him and throwing friendships and alliances under any passing buses just to maintain the lie he's telling about himself.
In the end, "Flight" hinges on the question of how long Whip can keep lying and what the consequences, both material and spiritual, of that lying could be. The script by John Gatins is sufficiently well-crafted that it's only in retrospect that one realizes that the two characters who are Whip's friends, a sybaritic drug dealer played by John Goodman and a straight-arrow fellow pilot played by Bruce Greenwood, are pretty schematic in their devil-angel functions. And the direction, by Robert Zemeckis, doing his first live-action film since 2000's "Cast Away" (his last decade of moviemaking has been consumed by motion-capture animation films like "Beowulf" and "A Christmas Carol") is pointed and energetic whether putting the viewer in the panicked cabin of a plunging jet or the uneasy calm of a hospital stairwell where three reprobates are sneaking a cigarette.
As for further "Lost Weekend" comparisons, its lead actor and director both won Academy Awards for their work that year. Just saying.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.