Director Robert Zemeckis gives good plane crash. He did it well in the early frames of Castaway, and the one here is even better. A short commercial flight, in heavy rain, from Orlando to Atlanta. Sudden mechanical breakdown, the uncontrolled dive, one engine fails, a calculated roll to stall the plunge, second engine fails, the eerie silence of a plane shorn of power, then the deadly quiet glide to a patch of open field. Crash. However, of the 102 souls on board, only 6 died, and the reason is clear. Skilled, decisive, with ice-water in his veins, the pilot was indisputably heroic. But this too is indisputable. Those same veins contained high levels of alcohol and traces of cocaine: The hero was also legally intoxicated.
But we already knew that, since the opening scene, just as good, coolly reveals “Whip” Whitaker’s morning ritual. Wake up groggily light a cigarette, drain the dregs from last night’s beerfest, snort a revivifying line, shower and don the uniform and aviator glasses and report for duty. Since the addled fly boy in question is Denzel Washington, looking rather pot-bellied and doughy for the occasion, this first sequence plus the subsequent crash have us riveted and hoping for more of the same, for an uninterrupted journey towards a great movie. Alas, this isn’t a direct Flight.
Instead, there’s an extended stopover when the script, tearing off on various tangents begins to resemble a room-full of errant luggage. Some of the tangents are interesting – like the gathering of officialdom in the aftermath of the tragedy. Reps from the National Transportation Safety Board, from the pilots’ union and from the airline company convene to pursue both their separate and common interests. All seem keen to mitigate the legal liability, thereby placing some of the blame on God and the rest on that real mechanical failure. As for Whip’s really damning toxicology report, the union’s lawyer (Don Cheadle) sets out to “kill” it on a technicality. Unfortunately, when he succeeds, the picture goes into its own tailspin.
That’s because the focus shifts from an intriguing aeronautical drama to a bland psychodrama, as boozy Whip refuses to admit he’s an alcoholic – albeit a remarkably functioning alcoholic, which raises another problem. Torn between lionizing and villainizing its star attraction, the screenplay keeps emphasizing Washington’s in-flight heroics, and thereby blunders into a case of truly impaired judgment: the tacit yet blaring assumption that, buoyed by an emergency’s adrenalin, a great pilot sober is still a great pilot drunk. Now that’s a sobering thought indeed, which, the next time I’m sandwiched into an aisle seat staring past the drinks cart at the locked cockpit, I dearly hope to have forgotten.
Anyway, from there, the baggage marked Days of Wine and Poses gets unpacked, leaving Washington to strike whatever pose is demanded by the story’s increasingly convoluted twists. He’s a good fella, he’s a bad fella, pulled off the wagon by his old friend Harling the flamboyant enabler (John Goodman chewing the scenery), then urged back on by his new friend Nicole the reformed junkie (Kelly Reilly swallowing a Georgian accent). So, oscillating to and fro, Whip stumbles towards the climax of the big NTSB hearing, where the suspense is meant to build around this puzzler: Will our flawed hero be falsely exonerated or truly redeemed?
In the hands of a less sentimental director than Zemeckis, that might be a compelling quandary; but here, for us no less than Whip, it feels like being stuck between a rock and a soft place. That makes his choice easy and our verdict easier. This movie is captivating until it gets uplifting – Flight soars when it crashes and crashes when it soars.