It’s funny how the smallest things in life can have such a strong control over us. For Denzel Washington’s latest character, airline pilot Whip Whitaker, alcohol is that small thing. Flight looked like it was going to be a thriller about a pilot who saves an airplane full of people during a crash landing, but it was so much more than that.
The film begins in an airport hotel with Whip waking up for a flight after a long night of drinking, drugs and pleasure with a fellow flight attendant. After an argument with someone over the phone about money for tuition, he gulps down the rest of a leftover beer, takes a hit of the remains of a joint, and then shockingly snorts a line of cocaine. Keep in mind that he’s going to pilot an airplane in less than two hours. Now try flying without being paranoid of whether or not your life is in the hands of a drunken coke-head.
There’s a nasty storm happening when Whip gets to the plane and readies it for take-off, so his first test of skill is maneuvering the aircraft through high turbulence and into clearer sky. The scary decisions continue as he discretely mixes three travel nips of vodka with a bottle of orange juice while speaking over the intercom to the passengers about the remaining trip. In the first 20 or so minutes of the movie, it’s blatantly clear that Whip Whitaker is an alcoholic.
Whip decides to take a nap while his co-pilot (Brian Geraghty, The Hurt Locker) manages the fair weather and easy flying. Things take a nasty turn when parts of the plane begin to fail and Whip must act fast to invert the plane completely upside down in order to slow the nose-first dive. He flips it back upright and gets to a calmer glide to find a clear place to put the plane down safely. A field behind a church is chosen to serve as the makeshift landing pad, and as he’s setting it down, there’s a chilling moment when he looks to his right, out the window past the co-pilot, and sees the right wing take out the steeple of the church. This is a great moment from director Robert Zemeckis because of the powerful foreshadowing and symbolism.
After the crash, Whip wakes up in the hospital to his old friend Charlie (Bruce Greenwood, Star Trek) who is part of the pilot’s union. Not much is said between the two, but you can’t help feeling Charlie popped up for a reason.
Later on, Whip’s eccentric drug dealer, Harling Mays (John Goodman) shows up to bring clothes and cigarettes, as well as complain about the weak drugs the hospital is giving Whip. His hospital stay ends with a stairwell cigarette break shared with recovering drug user Nicole (Kelly Reilly, Sherlock Holmes) and a hilarious young man from the basement cancer ward. It’s uncanny how Nicole’s and Whip’s tragic stories are intertwined in a masterful way to show that no matter how much you may be struggling in life, someone understands.
Fresh out of the hospital, Whip avoids the media staked out at his apartment and heads to his father’s childhood home, an old, secluded farmhouse complete with a barn and a plane. He immediately gets rid of all the alcohol in the house, dumping beer bottles, cans and hard liquor into the sink and garbage to rid himself of the evil he knows is controlling his life.
Shortly after receiving a call from Charlie, Whip meets him and Chicago lawyer, Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle, Iron Man 2, Brooklyn’s Finest) to discuss a toxicology report showing alcohol and cocaine in his blood when he was in the hospital after the event. Refusing to face the music and admit the truth, Whip storms out and stops at a package store on his way home for a 30-pack of beer and a handle of vodka, chugging much of the bottle before he even begins driving home.
This moment is agonizing to watch, very similar to the climax of the film, which is a close-up of a hotel mini-fridge bottle of vodka sitting on a counter waiting to either be picked up by Whip or left there, ultimately deciding his fate. Throughout the movie, his character constantly keeps you feeling sorry for him because of how severe the alcoholism truly is, but at the same time, wishing he would just see how destructive it is. His marriage fell apart because of alcohol, and he has a son that barely even knows who he is. The relationship with Nicole is an important one because of her drive to change and his avoidance to it, really keeping his mind in a constant tug-of-war.
Flight wasn’t just a movie about heroism in the face of adversity, but the importance of relationships with others, self-denial and bravery. Go see Denzel at his best; you won’t regret it. Nine out of 10.