Movie Review

'Flight' explores the nature of faith, complexities of heroism

The Philadelphia InquirerNovember 1, 2012 

Film Review Flight

This film image released by Paramount Pictures shows Denzel Washington portraying Whip Whitaker in a scene from "Flight." Washington plays an airline pilot who, despite being hung-over, drunk and coked-up, manages to bring down a rapidly deteriorating plane in a daring emergency landing on what should have been a routine flight between Orlando, Fla., and Atlanta.

ROBERT ZUCKERMAN — ASSOCIATED PRESS

  • Flight A Cast: Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, John Goodman, Director: Robert Zemeckis Website: www.paramount.com/flight/ Length: 2 hours, 18 mins Rating: R (sex, nudity, drugs, alcohol, profanity) Theaters Raleigh: Mission Valley, Six Forks, North Hills, Grande, Brier Creek, Wakefield, Carmike.

It’s unlikely the Pilots Association will put its seal of approval on “Flight,” a high-wire drama about a commercial airline captain – Denzel Washington, in an extraordinary, Oscar-worthy performance – who crash-lands a jet carrying “102 souls.” In a feat of aeronautic ingenuity, Whip Whitaker rights a nose-first descent, bringing his crippled plane down across a field, clipping a church steeple before hitting the turf. Six people, including two crew members, die. But 96 live.

Washington’s Whitaker, a veteran in the U.S. Navy, the grandson of a crop-duster pilot who was one of the fabled Tuskegee Airmen, looks like a hero.

And then they look at his blood tests. Not only were his alcohol levels off the charts, the tests show he had been using cocaine before the flight left Orlando for Atlanta. The audience is already keenly aware of this fact: “Flight,” bracingly directed by Robert Zemeckis, begins with the alarm buzzing in Whip’s motel room, where he has spent the night in the company of a coworker, flight attendant Katerina Marquez (Nadine Velazquez). It’s an orgy scene of substance abuse.

“Flight,” with its surprisingly raw depiction of binge drinking, of the ingestion of illegal drugs – and, in the case of a hard-luck Atlanta masseuse, the injection of drugs – is a movie about addiction. In the stairwell of a hospital where Whip is recovering from his crash injuries, and where he has gone to sneak a cigarette (yes, he’s a chain smoker, too), he meets Nicole (Kelly Riley), the aforementioned masseuse, a heroin overdose case. A third patient, a guy with cancer, shows up, and the discussion turns to God, and the belief that nothing in life comes by hazard, by chance. There is a grand design, even if it includes plane crashes and cancer.

“Flight,” then, examines the nature of faith – and the failures and flaws of human beings plagued by self-deception and self-destruction. It’s no accident that SouthJet Air flight 227 hits a Pentecostal church on its way down, that the passenger manifest is full of “souls,” that Whip’s handling of the broken plane is described as “nothing short of a miracle” and that his copilot is a born-again Christian.

And that John Goodman, playing Whip’s dysfunctional best buddy, a boisterous Big Lebowski wannabe with a duffel bag full of booze and coke, arrives accompanied by the voodoo intro to the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.” The horizon line of “Flight” is defined by heaven and hell.

Washington, as he demonstrated in “Training Day,” is at his best when he is exploring moral compromise and corruption, when he plays someone gone bad, given in to temptation, to despair. The road to redemption in “Flight” is an exceedingly rocky one, and Zemeckis is smart enough to have us believe for a time that Whip might never get there. After experimenting with mega-million “performance capture” projects for the last decade (“The Polar Express,” “A Christmas Carol,“ “Beowulf”), it’s nice to see the filmmaker capturing some “real” performances.

If Goodman seems cranked up a little too much, the others in the cast – the British actress Riley, Don Cheadle as a lawyer hired to represent Whip, Bruce Greenwood as the head of the pilot’s union and Velasquez and Tamara Tunie as flight attendants – seem perfectly in step with the screenplay’s pace and purpose.

“Flight” is neither a simple story of heroism, nor one of a fallen hero. Things are more complex than that – and it is its complexities that make the film all the more rewarding an experience.

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