NERVOUS flyers look away now, but the first half hour of Flight is one of the best of the last 12 months, from the moment the camera tracks Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) down to his hotel room after a night of carnage that includes drugs, booze and a comely bed partner (Nadine Velazquez).
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Running time: 138 minutes
* * *
A swig of beer, and he’s awake, a couple of lines of coke and he’s ready to roll, and once he’s got his aviator glasses to hide the baggage under his eyes, he’s ready to board a plane to Atlanta – as its pilot.
Not everyone is fooled. His young co-pilot (Brian Geraghty) is pretty sure the captain has something stronger than ice in his veins, but when the plane starts to malfunction Whip appears to be the man you need at the controls when creative solutions are called for. In this case he flips the aircraft 180 degrees and flies it upside down until they can crash land safely, with a minimal loss of life.
It’s a nice touch that the film implies piloting this plane requires someone slightly loaded, rendering Whip nerveless in the face of danger. If he’d been more sober, he might have been paralysed by the riskiness of his daredevilry. And at this point, Flight the movie could have taken off in several directions itself. Alas, director Robert Zemeckis opts for the least exciting arc – a voyage into the Days Of Wine And Roses.
A federal investigation threatens to reveal Whip’s lack of sobriety, unless his old union boss (Bruce Greenwood) can obfuscate and a slick lawyer (Don Cheadle) can suppress Whip’s blood-alcohol test results. But of course, Whip’s refusal to admit that he has a problem continues to put his life in a tailspin.
Adding to the finger-wagging is Kelly Reilly as an addict who might offer a fresh start and a possible relationship if he can finally admit he has a problem, although the real problem is a soundtrack that follows the characters around, striking up on-the-nose diagnosis of what we’re seeing on screen. When heroin is being taken, Sweet Jane moans reprovingly in the background, and With A Little Help From My Friends hits the deck when Whip is being dealt something to soften his edges.
Flight is an earnestly well-intentioned movie, and there’s much to like about Washington’s performance, which is perhaps his best since Training Day. He proves that you can win Oscars playing heroes and plaudits for playing villains – but keeping audiences rooted to someone as exasperating as Whip deserves a special kind of award as he walks out of AA meetings, buys litres of vodka to chug in his car, and calls up his ponytailed drug dealer mate (John Goodman) to swagger down the hallway to Sympathy For The Devil (hang on – I thought Flight was supposed to regard dealers as awful, not awesome).
It’s a rare film that brings Zemeckis back to live action, after a string of disappointing experiments with dead-eyed motion capture animation, including Polar Express, A Christmas Carol and Beowulf. I just wish he had managed to maintain the turbulent promise of Flight’s soaring opening. Instead, his film settles into a holding pattern around a fairly ordinary and obvious addiction story, with a landing that can be spotted miles away.
On general release from Friday.