Director: Robert Zemeckis
Rating R. Running Time: 139 mins.
Stars: Denzel Washington, John Goodman, Don Cheadle
An intensely personal drama told on an epic scale, Flight stars Denzel Washington as Whip Whitaker, a booze-and-cocaine-addicted airline pilot who nevertheless manages to show up for work each day. In fact, on one particularly bad day — and in one of the most intensely immersive scenes ever put on film — Whip pulls off a stupendously improbable landing as the plane virtually disintegrates around him.
The good news: Nearly everyone on board survives, and Whip becomes a national hero. The not-so-good news: Cocaine and alcohol are found in his blood after the accident, and no display of heroics in the world can mask his problem.
Of course, like so many substance abusers, Whip doesn't think he even has a problem. He spends most of the movie denying his out-of-control habits to everyone who challenges him, including a beautiful young heroin addict he meets in the hospital (Kelly Reilly), his ex-wife (Garcelle Beauvais), an old pilot buddy (Bruce Greenwood) and his lawyer (Don Cheadle). In fact, the only person with whom Whip can truly let his guard down is his cheerful drug connection, played by the ever-buoyant John Goodman.
Weaving along the booze-soaked trail that so many great film actors have navigated before him, Washington gives a career-defining performance, right up there with Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend, Jack Lemmon in Days of Wine and Roses, and Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas. So good is he, in fact, that we begin to share the other characters' sheer fatigue from merely being around him: at well over two hours, Flight could use perhaps one or two fewer scenes of Whip on yet another bender.
But then, the adrenaline rush provided by director Robert Zemeckis in Flight's first 20 minutes is more than enough to keep us riveted through the more subtle dramas that follow. Not since Paul Greengrass sat us in the coach section for his 9/11 drama United 93 has a filmmaker so effectively summoned up the primal fears that, for the less air-worthy of us, lurk beneath every lurch, every "fasten your seat belts" warning. As Whip progressively loses control of his suddenly diving aircraft, Zemeckis makes great use of that plastic-grinding-against-plastic cabin sound — you know, the one that causes you to suspect the whole plane is twisting in on itself like a wrung dishrag. (Or is it just me?)