By Will Leitch
1. Until the last 10 minutes, Flight in large part resembles one of those tough, dark character studies they used to make in the ’70s, like The Gambler or The Verdict, in which we watch a man who has lost control of his life face external circumstances that give him one last chance to save himself. But we live in different times now. Those movies were willing to follow their lead character down into the depths and toss him out to sea without any assurance he will be rescued. Today, we need to know everything’s going to be OK. For about two hours, Flight is surprisingly ballsy for a mainstream Hollywood film. Then it loses its nerve. That, perhaps, was inevitable.
2. The movie’s initial premise is so simple that you can imagine a coked-up young studio exec pounding it into his Blackberry at 2:30 a.m. one random Tuesday: What if Sully Sullenberger was a drug addict and an alcoholic? When a plane’s rear flap malfunctions on a flight from Atlanta to Orlando, sending the aircraft into an immediate, irreversible nosedive, the pilot, Whip Whitaker (played by Denzel Washington, who would never, ever be named “Whip Whitaker”), pulls off a miracle maneuver to crash-land in a field and save all but six passengers. He, like Sully, is immediately hailed as a national hero, but the problem is that his life is a disaster because of alcohol and drug abuse. And, right, he was, in fact, drunk while flying the plane. As all the lawyers and federal regulators get involved, Whitaker attempts to evade liability for the disaster while—remember, he’s still a drunk—creating a whole series of new disasters.
3. It’s truly impressive how far the film (and, specifically, Washington) is willing to go with his alcoholism. This is Denzel Washington, so you instinctively side with him (with Washington expertly dropping subtle clues into Whitaker’s damaged but good soul without ever dwelling on it), but Whitaker is a horror show. His alcoholism has taken over every aspect of his life, destroying his marriage and his relationship with his son, forcing him to sell his family’s farm and putting him in the situation where the only person he knows to call after the accident is his drug dealer. Washington digs deep here and never compromises; he’s never looked older, more tired, more broken. Whitaker isn’t a particularly likable person. He’s self-centered, deceitful, cruel … in other words, a full-blown, far-gone alcoholic. (A scene in which he busts into his ex-wife’s house and is confronted by his 15-year-old son is searing in its courage to avoid looking away.) It’s an incredibly powerful performance by an actor who, after a few years of apparent coasting, brings everything he has and more.
4. The movie can’t quite follow him all the way, though: It craves its redemption narrative. Director Robert Zemeckis’s name isn’t exactly the first to come to mind to make an unflinching look at a man in the grips of addiction—Zemeckis made Back to the Future and Forrest Gump—and he keeps throwing silly, conventional roadblocks in his actor’s way. Whit gets a romantic interest in a recovering heroin addict (played well by Kelly Reilly), but their story never quite clicks. Reilly’s performance isn’t obligatory, but the character is. John Goodman plays the dealer in a broad, comic manner that’s entertaining but doesn’t really fit with the rest of the film: at the end, he’s called in almost as a Winston Wolfe sort, and a moment when we should be horrified and despairing is played oddly lightly. Zemeckis has a tough time settling on a precise tone, and ultimately just relies on his star to guide him.
5. For all the visual awe of the plane crash—that’s Zemeckis at his most comfortable—it’s so out of step with the rest of the film that by the end you almost forget it happened. You can make an argument that Whitaker’s piloting skills are almost beside the point: He’s a man in helpless downward spiral, and what he did on one rainy morning in a plane isn’t going to change that. Zemeckis keeps trying to build toward a redemption story, but Washington is so convincing as a man who is gone that when he makes his final, life-changing decision, it feels less revelatory than obligatory, moving but not necessarily earned. This doesn’t need to be Requiem for a Dream or anything, but if we’re going to get a turn-around, Face-Your-Fears ending, the movie has to work its way toward it. Flight is smart and daring and compelling … but it just won’t go all the way. Fortunately, it has an actor who will. Denzel Washington will turn 58 years old in December, close to entering that Lion In Winter point of his career. (He’s actually a year older than Newman when he made The Verdict, a similar film about an alcoholic; Newman would be in full fledged Older-Actor mode four years later in The Color of Money.) To see him continuing to challenge himself like this, to push himself to the places he does in this movie, is thrilling and awesome and inspiring. The next 20 years of his career: they may be the best ones.