Washington’s performance guides ‘Flight’

This movie review was originally published at TCU 360 on Nov. 13, 2012. Photo found here.

Let’s get one thing straight right from the get-go: “Flight” isn’t a film about airplanes. It isn’t about pilots. And it isn’t about a plane crash. “Flight” is about alcoholism.

Granted, all of those things do play an integral part in the film’s plot, but this is less an action film about a plane crash than it is a drama about a man battling his demons.

Denzel Washington plays Whip Whitaker, a pilot who wakes up hungover the day of his flight to Atlanta after a night of drugs, sex and booze with a stewardess. He takes a call from his angry ex-wife, has a breakfast of warm beer and a line of cocaine, and then he’s on his way to the airport.

Whitaker boards the plane (set to Joe Cocker’s “Feelin’ Alright”) hungover and straps himself in for what seems like a routine flight. The only problem comes when there’s a bit of turbulence, which he navigates calmly. After that settles down, he makes himself a screwdriver with the mini-vodka bottles in the plane’s beverage container, puts the plane on autopilot, hands the controls over to his co-pilot, and goes to sleep.

Anyone who’s seen the trailers knows what happens next. The plane hits turbulence and Whitaker rolls the plane over in order to ride out the storm and safely land in a pasture. The crash only kills six people, and Whitaker is lauded as a hero.

What the trailers don’t say is that the crash sequence takes up about 45 minutes of the film.  The remaining two hours focus on the fact that Whitaker’s toxicology report after the crash revealed he had been drinking, and how Whitaker deals with that fact that he is finally being forced to deal with his addiction. The plane crash is merely the catalyst that sets the stage for the rest of the film.

The performances are what make this film enjoyable. Washington is amazing as Whitaker, a role that, in the hands of a lesser actor, could have easily fallen into farce. Washington nails all of the subtleties of an alcoholic in denial of his problem.

Whitaker is just the latest in a series of morally ambiguous characters for Washington, close on the heels of Safe House’s Tobin Frost, and in the tradition of Training Day’s Alonzo Harris and American Gangster’s Frank Lucas. You don’t want to root for this guy, but you end up sympathizing with him by the end.

Don Cheadle does a nice job as Whitaker’s lawyer, and John Goodman’s drug dealer steals every scene he’s in. Every scene Goodman is in provides comic relief in an otherwise very dark and serious film.

The only problem I had with “Flight” is that it does tend to drag on at some points, and a romantic subplot with Whitaker and a woman he meets while in the hospital after the crash doesn’t do anything to move the story along.

Director Robert Zemeckis also blatantly tells the audience how to feel through song choices- Whitaker’s hungover entry into the plane is scored to Cocker’s “Feelin’ Alright”; Goodman’s character enters to The Rolling Stones’s “Sympathy for the Devil”; a character shoots up heroin to the tune of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’s “Under the Bridge,”; Whitaker drives to his country home hideout with “Gimme Shelter” on the radio– it gets a bit repetitive. The film is much more compelling in its quieter moments when the audience isn’t sure how to feel.

There’s a scene at the end of “Flight” where another character asks Whitaker, “Who are you?” Whitaker responds with, “I don’t really know.”

The audience doesn’t really know either, and that’s what makes Washington’s performance–and the film– so compelling.

Rating:  4 out of 5 stars

Jake Harris is a junior journalism major from Wahiawa, HI.

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