[I’ll try to keep this review reasonably spoiler free, but beware!]
Flight first caught my attention last year, when its first trailer was released. The trailer was one of the best movie trailers I’d seen for quite some time and I think I may have held off from watching the film because I believed it wouldn’t live up to its great trailer. But luckily it did, and then some. Flight is one of the most compelling films of 2012 and is one of the greatest, and most enjoyable character studies I’ve seen in a long while. The film is about a drunken, drug abusing pilot, Whip Whitaker, whose plane malfunctions and leaves him barley able to control it. Thinking on instinct he tries a risky maneuver and it pays off, and he manages to crash land the plane, saving most of the passengers. Unfortunately though, four passengers die and an inquest is undertook. The film follows Whip as he tries not to be prosecuted for the deaths of these passengers while meanwhile trying to kick his drink and drug addiction. It’s a true return to form for director Robert Zemeckis, who hasn’t had a film this good since perhaps the Back to The Future trilogy. And yes, I think it’s better than Cast Away and Forrest Gump.
Arguably, the main draw to Flight is leading man Denzel Washington. He is one of the rare actors who is great no matter what he’s in, be it a kick ass Tony Scott action film such as Man on Fire, the under-appreciated time travelling thriller Deja Vu, or a straight drama such as Malcom X. The 4 time Tony Scott collaborator is awesome no-matter the film. And in Flight, Denzel really gets to shine. His portrayal of alcoholic, coke snorting, womanising pilot Whip Whitaker is truly Oscar worthy, and had I seen Flight before Daniel Day Lewis won the best actor Oscar for Lincoln, I’d have put my money on Denzel. Whip is an alcoholic scumbag, and while you should hate the man, instead you feel for him. Washington and Zemeckis really communicate the pull that the bottle has on this character and you find your self urging him on to quit the demon drink. And while the film does show the dark parts of his battle with drink the film isn’t as down beat as it could have been, and the lighter moments are usually provided by Whip’s drug dealing friend Harling Mays, played by John Goodman. While it does seem that Goodman’s character only pops up to offer some light relief, and barely adds anything to the story, he is funny, often hilarious and is a welcome contrast to the usual drug dealing types of characters seen in most films.
Other characters include Whip’s lawyer, played by Don Cheadle, Whip’s friend and union rep played by the always reliable Bruce Greenwood and Whip’s ‘girlfriend’ Nicole played by Kelly Reilly. The Cheadle and Greenwood characters try to help Whip get off the drink and drugs and try and prepare him for his big court case where he needs to prove he wasn’t the one responsible for the crash. Cheadle and Greenwood have some great scenes with Washington, a scene involving a hung over Whip, cocaine and Goodman’s character is a real standout, but you can’t help but slightly ignore everyone else’s performance when Washington is in the room. Not to say these actors aren’t good, they are, really good in fact, but this is Denzel Washington’s show and he blows everyone else out of the water. Kelly Reilly does come close though and her character, Nicole, is a drug addict as well. Similarly to Whip we find ourselves rooting for her to give up the drugs. Her character also gives us a view into the dark side of drug taking, as Whip’s storyline is mainly focused on his alcoholism, sometimes ignoring the fact that he is also a drug addict. Without her in the film it could have looked like it was simply glossing over drug addiction. sometimes even glamorising it. Fortunately because of Nicole’s presence, it doesn’t. Other characters pop up here and there, notably a strange, but enjoyable appearance by James Badge Dale (recently seen in Iron Man 3) as a cancer patient who Whip and Nicole meet in the hospital.
Earlier I wrote how, arguably, the main draw to Flight was leading man Denzel Washington. If that is the case then the second main attraction of Flight would have be the stunning crash sequence that opens the movie. I can’t stress enough how brilliant this scene is, but the scene starts the film off on a note that perhaps can’t be matched by the rest of the film. The scene is one of the most thrilling scenes in recent movie history, and the film is worth a watch on this scene alone. This scene shows that Zemeckis, who until Flight hadn’t done a live action film for 13 years, since Cast Away, is a great director whether it’s with live action or computer effects. In fact the whole film is directed with great style and effort, and Zemeckis elevates the direction above the mundane level it could have been, and is often seen in these types of films. There is also more to the film than just the plane scene and Denzel’s performance as a tortured alcoholic, there is also the amazing soundtrack. The great score by Alan Silvestri mixed with songs by artists such as the Rolling Stones create a great tone and an awesome back drop to the story of a disgraced alcoholic pilot on the road to redemption.
That really is the most important story in Flight and, ultimately, everything else is of little importance. While on the face of things it may seem to be a story about Whip trying to escape being charged with manslaughter and him being an unfit pilot. The real story, the one that matters an draws the audience in is the story of Whips battle with the bottle. We cheer him on when he decides not to drink and we are disappointed when he falls back into his old alcoholic ways. Flight is a great character study, not shying away from the dark side of drinking but keeping the tone often light and humorous. Some people may find the tonal shifts jarring, but not me though. I thoroughly enjoyed Flight, and it is not only one of the best films of 2012, but it is also one of the best character studies of the last few years. How ever good Robert Zemeckis is with computer effects, he’s even better with live action. None of his CG images have stuck with me the way the scene of a destroyed, drunken Whip, crying at his court tribunal have.
The Bottom Line: Flight is a great character study about a pilot’s realistic drinking problems, causing problems in his life and his career. A terrifically directed film by Zemeckis, it’s a must watch for the direction, Denzel Washington’s subtle performance and the amazing but devastating plane crash sequence.