***This review contains spoilers, but nothing that isn't shown in the trailer. If you want to go in knowing nothing, stop reading now.***
Denzel Washington rarely disappoints, and his role in Flight is one of his most interesting performances in years. Unlike many of his roles, this one casts doubts about whether Washington's character is a hero or a villain.
If you haven't seen any reviews of the film, you might think that Flight is going to feature a lot of action, but the action is over once we experience the crash sequence. This is very much a drama.
The opening scenes show Captain Whip Whitaker (Washington) in bed with a flight attendant. He's been awake all night and he's drunk and high on cocaine. That's not exactly the best preparation for work when you are going to be entrusted with the lives of everyone on board a plane. Would you be happy if you knew that your pilot was in such a state?
Whitaker feels the need for another drink before the plane takes off, and drinks vodka without anyone noticing. When he takes his seat next to the co-pilot, Ken, his behavior appears a little odd. Whitaker orders coffee and Aspirin and takes off as though nothing is wrong. Ken's suspicions heighten when Whitaker exceeds the recommended speed while climbing to escape bad weather.
If you remember the crash in Cast Away, you'll know that Robert Zemeckis knows how to portray such an event effectively. In Flight, the crash is even more terrifying. If you are nervous about flying, this won't help you overcome it. The plane starts to fall apart at 30,000 feet, but Whitaker remains calm, although everyone else is panicking. In one of the best scenes in the film, he takes the aircraft into a controlled roll and flies upside down to recover from an uncontrolled dive, before landing it in a field. Six of the 102 people on board are killed.
That all happens during the first 30 minutes of the film. Whitaker is apparently a hero, and we later learn that what he did was something that other pilots were unable to duplicate in simulated tests. So why isn't that the end of the story?
Someone has to be blamed for the crash.
A parallel story shows Nicole (Kelly Reilly), who is addicted to drugs. She meets Whitaker in the corridor of a hospital, when both sneak out to smoke a cigarette. Addiction is a key theme in the film and the two develop a kind of bond, recognizing similar character traits in each other.
The remainder of the story is a character study, and shows how Whitaker deals with life after the crash. Addictions to drugs and alcohol have affected some of the most important relationships in his life. We see him struggle to face that fact and the impact of the decisions he makes.
Whitaker isn't completely free to confront his personal demons as he is being investigated to determine whether he was at fault during the crash. We see him prepare for a hearing, which is not a trial in court, but could lead to him being found responsible for the six deaths, and ultimately result in him serving a life sentence. His preparation is aided by Charlie (Bruce Greenwood), a former pilot and colleague, and Hugh (Don Cheadle), who is a lawyer. Both give strong performances in small supporting roles. The most colorful character in the film is Whitaker's friend, Harling Mays (John Goodman). If Goodman had played The Dude in The Big Lebowski, he would have looked something like this.
Melissa Leo does a good job as Ellen Block, who leads the investigation into Whitaker's performance. Although I would like to talk about that sequence, I have already given away more than enough details about the plot.
Flight contains elements that make it a little hard to categorize. It's certainly not an action movie, but the crash scene will have you on the edge of your seat. It's more about addiction and what drives people to do what they do. It also makes the viewer question what is right and what is wrong.
If you have seen the film, is Whitaker a hero? What about the airline itself? Is the outcome fair, or would you have liked to have seen a different resolution?
Whatever your opinion of the events on the screen, it's hard to argue about the quality of the film itself. Washington gives one of his best performances, and Zemeckis treats the audience with respect and raises a lot of questions.
Flight is one of the best films I have seen in 2012.