Flight opens with an introduction to Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) that sets up the character with exactly the kind of neat and effortless writing that makes Flight such a solid drama. Whip has just woken up in a hotel room, clearly feeling the effects of a heavy night, and he’s not alone. As he answers the phone to his ex-wife – a small argument with her about money ensues – we see Whip leer at the posterior of the woman who has just emerged from his bed and survey the empties from the night before.
It’s an introduction to a character that suggests a lot of things, not least that the character that we are about to spend almost three hours with is not entirely likeable. Then comes the real kicker, Whip Whitaker is a commercial pilot. Not only that but after drinking heavily the night before he is just about to pilot a plane of unsuspecting passengers.
Whip pauses to take a line of coke and he’s ready to fly.
What follows this first scene is a bravura piece of filmmaking from director Robert Zemekis in a sequence which inter-cuts Whip piloting and ultimately crashing a plane with scenes of Nicole (Kelly Reilly), who Whip will later encounter, scoring drugs, shooting up and eventually succumbing to a non-fatal overdose.
The plane crash, which is preceded by an incredibly effective series of tension ramping moments, is extraordinary and when seen on a big screen will leave many feeling breathless and gripping the arms of their seats. This is very much just the beginning of the story though and it is the fallout of this crash that makes up the real meat of the film.
Whip is first celebrated as a hero – his daring manoeuvre saves the lives of 96 of the 102 souls on boards – but slowly the loose threads that make up his life begin to unravel in both small and far larger dramatic ways. Most significantly his alcoholism is uncovered and as he starts seeing Nicole we begin to see two interesting viewpoints on addiction. As Whip continues to spiral downwards – aided by the angel and the devil voices on his shoulders of union rep. Charlie (Bruce Greenwood) and lawyer Hugh (Don Cheadle) – Nicole begins treatment and finds a way to recovery.
Whip still has further to fall though and Zemekis and screenwriter John Gatins provide little hope throughout that we will see a simple tale of redemption. The story develops at a leisurely pace at times, often too leisurely, but the space given to the story helps make for a fully realised and engaging character study, and when the film reaches its climax it feels momentous in a way that is entirely justified by the journey we travel to get there.
Unfortunately there are times in Flight in which Zemekis over eggs the pudding somewhat. The attention drawing extravagance of a camera flying towards Washington’s face as he snorts a line of coke, for instance, is almost unforgivable but aside from some occasional over-the-top camera-work Zemekis plays things relatively straight and refined.
The same can’t be said for the soundtrack unfortunately, which features perhaps the most on-the-nose soundtrack choices I have ever heard in a dramatic feature. Songs featuring drug references are particularly rife, the use of With a Little Help From My Friends approaches out and out comedy, and those with an even passing knowledge of popular music will most likely tire of the incessant intrusions of oh-so-relevant song choices such as Under the Bridge or Sweet Jane.
Despite pulling you out of the film these music choices are nowhere near enough to derail what is for the most part an incredibly well handled, smart and dramatically rich film about a fascinating character. Washington has perhaps never been better and as the film reaches a climax that rests on the fascinating concept of “one lie too many” it is a testament to Gatins’ convincing writing that we almost will Whip to keep lying.
Presenting dense ethical ideas and emotionally rich situations within the arc of an engaging story, Zemekis and Gatin have made exactly the kind of big film that Hollywood can do so well, but sadly rarely do.