A pilot who is an alcoholic, a cancer patient and a drug addict recovering from a heroin overdose meet in a stairwell. It sounds like the beginning of a lurid joke but this is the world of Flight, the new film from director Robert Zemeckis that takes a borderline farcical approach to addiction that’s so heavy-handed it could be added to the weight program at a gym. Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is an airline pilot who successfully crash lands a plane during an emergency. When the authorities come looking for the cause of the accident, Whip is forced to face a few ugly truths about his life.
The introduction to Whip’s world is swift and Zemeckis wastes no time establishing the character waking up with a hangover after a night of heavy drinking who quickly smokes, drinks and snorts his way through the world’s most unbalanced breakfast. The contrast between this rude awakening and the reveal of Whip in full pilots uniform is potent and places doubt in the mind over how his workday is going to play out. It sets the tone well while developing the character with ease.
Zemeckis delivers a riveting flight sequence that places a lot of the camera in the cockpit of the aircraft that gives a good perspective on how the pilots handle the situation. There is no emphasis on mechanical parts breaking loose or shoddy airline ground workers not doing their jobs properly to place the blame somewhere. Watching Whip and his co-pilot take off in a storm looking through the tiny windshield of the aircraft, blinded by rain and clouds, is very unnerving. Despite Whip’s flaws there is no denying his genius behind the controls of an airplane, but the quandary between Whip as a hero or villain arises in the wake of the accident and that's where the film falls apart.
Washington gives a good performance and there is a scene in a hospital where the actor gives more emotion in one eyeball than most actors achieve in an entire film. The pain and denial that ravages Whip is encapsulated in Washington’s performance despite a few overzealous drunk acting moments. Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood and Melissa Leo are wasted as bland corporate types dropping huge plot points in their exposition. Kelly Reilly playing a glamorous yet troubled drug addict comes off the worst with her addiction implied by heavy mascara that looks to have been applied the same manic makeup artist that painted on her all too obvious needle track marks.
Zemeckis must have erased the word “subtlety” from his mind before making Flight. Everything following the accident is overemphasised and it is best showcased with his selection of music. A scene where someone injects heroin features the Red Hot Chili Peppers anthem of drug dependence “Under the Bridge” (get it, they like drugs) and a drug dealer character played woefully by John Goodman is followed everywhere by music from The Rolling Stones. It may have been easier to just cast Keith Richards in the role (get it, he likes drugs too). As Whip discusses the fallout from the accident with his co-pilot who is looking for answers in faith, there is a Bible on a table, a crucifix on the wall and his girlfriend continually kisses a cross around her neck while screaming “PRAISE JESUS!” Praise the lord indeed for the sledgehammer of certainty that Zemeckis thrashes the audience with throughout Flight. Even the wreckage of the aircraft is representative of Whip as a broken man and thankfully there weren’t big flashing red arrows to further hammer home the comparison, broken man, broken plane, nudge-nudge, wink-wink.
Flight does build momentum to the final act but even in the closing moments of the film it feels like the entire 138 minute running time is leading up to a punch line that’s masquerading as the film’s dramatic zenith. Despite the valiant establishment of a deeply flawed character, Flight wallows in a fantasy world of addiction that’s contrived and overbearing to the point where the idea of excessive alcohol sounds like the solution to wiping this film from memory.
Cameron Williams - follow Cam on Twitter here: @popcornjunkies