A naked women walks around a hotel room. A man awakes in a daze before taking a huge line of cocaine. He clearly has his vices. He realises he needs to get ready for work and pulls on his uniform – a pilot’s uniform.
Instantly, from the very first scene, it’s clear that the man in question, Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington), is going to have a pretty tough time of things. The mix of alcohol, drugs and piloting a plane is never going to end happily and so even when he spectacularly negotiates a crash landing, saving numerous lives, a toxicology report leaves him at the centre of an investigation and facing life in prison.
It should be noted that Flight is not a film about flying. Sure, it has planes, pilots, etc, but it’s not in any way about flying. Swap the plane crash for any other disaster and it’s the exact same film. This is very much a character piece about a man struggling to curb his addiction.
The film’s opening third is suitably impressive. We know that Whit is drunk and high on drugs and yet he’s calmness personified captaining his flight. We also know something is going to go wrong and there’s a real intensity and tenseness about the scenes. However, from that point, the film never really regains this intensity and it focuses solely on Whip trying to deal with his addictions before his life spirals completely out of control. This drop in pace is not a criticism as it is largely handled very well, but some may be left wanting for the thrill of the opening act. Similarly, the film’s climax and denouement are somewhat formulaic and don’t do the rest of the film service, although there are few directions it could have gone to achieve a satisfying conclusion. There’s not much here that hasn’t been done before or that comes as a surprise but it’s still handled effectively enough.
What does really helps the film tick along is Denzel. His performance as Whip is superb and really makes you toil with yourself whether to support or abhor him. Washington is more renowned for his action roles but it’s performances like this that show he has much more in his locker. His supporting cast, however, aren’t quite on the same level. His tumultuous romance with fellow addict Nicole (Kelly Reilly) feels rushed and her character underdeveloped, whilst Harling (John Goodman), Whit’s dealer friend, feels ridiculously out of place and far too over the top. This is a film about Whit, though, so it’s only expected that other characters may be marginalised slightly.
Flight marks director Robert Zemeckis’ first live action film since 2000’s Castaway and proves that this is where his talents lie. During that time he directed the animated trio of The Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol but none of them really had the impact his previous work did. Flight, however, is very much a return to form, or at least a step in that direction.