Without question, the most affecting moment in Flight is the pivotal crash sequence. Less than 15 minutes into the film we are immersed in the visceral bedlam of an airplane hurtling towards the ground. Director Robert Zemeckis points his camera at any and every element of the terrifying situation, from the malfunctioning engines, to the haywire instrument panels, to the panicked passengers, allowing his pilot protagonist—Whip Whitaker—to serve as the calm center. Frequent flyers will almost certainly recall this scene the next time their plane hits some turbulence—a testament to the pure, horrifying authenticity of Flight‘s instigating moment. Unfortunately, once their plane settles back into the clouds, they’ll be left to ponder the rest of the film, and how a stellar beginning could result in such a lackluster finish.
Whitaker (Denzel Washington), is an alcoholic and a drug addict. Flight’s opening scene finds him in a wrecked hotel room, battered by the previous night’s excess, snorting lines to bring himself back through the fog. He drinks before and during the titular flight, and after the crash has his blood drawn by the accident-investigating NTSB. This positive test for alcohol and cocaine leads Whip on a name-clearing journey for the truth behind the crash. After years of hiding his noxious habits, he must now find his way around them, all the while ignoring the appeals to tone it down from Charlie (Bruce Greenwood), his longtime friend and head of the Pilots Union; pleading with a virtuous flight attendant (Tamara Tunie) and bible-thumping co-pilot (Brian Geraghty) to lie for him; avoiding even the calls to action from his product-of-circumstance companion Nic (Kelly Reilly), herself an addict. Whip, like many alcoholics, is ultimately concerned only with what this conflict will do for his habit, and so, he begins his descent.
Despite its marketing as an “action-packed mystery/thriller”, Flight is a film solely about addiction. The plane crash is important only insofar as it places Whip Whitaker in a national spotlight, where he has no choice but to either acknowledge his habit and the impracticality of being an alcoholic and a pilot, or maintain his ceaseless deception. This discrepancy is important to understand, because it reveals a degree of carelessness that pervades the movie as a whole. As Whip bounces off of characters who, for a variety of disparate reasons, simply want to help him, there’s very little indication of what the film is trying to do. Like a number of other addiction stories, Flight is an anxiety-producing downward spiral, with few clues as to where it’s headed. Yet these other stories dealing with personal obsession tend to articulate their themes early on, whereas here, Zemeckis is all over the tonal map. One scene might reveal Whip Whitaker at his bleakest–an addict fighting against himself, or simply wasted beyond comprehension. Yet, inexplicably, another scene will treat his torment as a jape. In one particularly egregious moment towards the film’s end, Whip’s longtime dealer Harling (John Goodman) provides some “wake-up” coke, preparing Whip for a key deposition despite his utter inebriation. This scene, wherein an addict we’ve been following for the last hour plus is literally hitting his bottom, is quite deliberately played for laughs. When did addiction become a punchline?
Flight isn’t all bad. A strong performance from Denzel serves as the film’s foundation, both structurally and cosmetically. A pair of cameos in Goodman and James Badge Dale (as the Cancer Patient Prophet) certainly add some momentum, even if they are a product of the actors’ talents and not the direction. And as I said earlier, the film’s inciting incident is as astonishing as it is terrifying. But ultimately this film is far too sloppy to get its point across. Zemeckis is painting in broad strokes, applying themes like faith and regret liberally, yet without any real indication of why they’re present. Robert Zemeckis is clearly a true talent, yet his latest seems to be guided by passion and not reflection. In his eagerness to tell this story, he seems to have ignored the possibility that this story might not have anything new to say.