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A Harrowing Descent

Nov. 2, 2012
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The pilot who brings his plane and passengers down safely in a crisis was already an old Hollywood story when Dean Martin landed his 707 in Airport. The new twist in Flight is that the harrowing aerial descent is only the prelude to the professional and personal come down for the pilot, Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington). When Whip flunks the post-crash sobriety test, he must confront himself in the mirror: What he sees is a man leashed to booze and cocaine. Can he free himself from addiction, save his career and renew his life?

Back up to the morning of the crash: Awakened from a night of excessive drinking (and sex with his flight attendant), Whip snorts a line to gain altitude and turns entirely professional in his pressed blue uniform and captain’s cap. Through the storm that buffets his plane and the failure of his operating system, Whip is cool as a razor and sharp on the attack as his straight-arrow co-pilot quivers in panic. For Whip, ex-Navy and a crop duster’s son, piloting a plane isn’t like playing a video game. Through the 30-knot crosscurrents and the airliner’s sharp nose-dive, cameras are wedged in the cockpit; the descent and leveling are visceral. It’s among the best-shot action sequences in memory.

But the story told by director Robert Zemeckis in his first live action movie since 2000’s Cast Away is no mere disaster picture. The screenplay by John Gatins draws from the writer’s own battles with alcoholism. Once the plane lands on a rough field in a marvel of trick flying, Flight becomes another Lost Weekend, not along-delayed sequel to Airport. Playing a hero under fire is easy work for an actor as seasoned as Washington. Embodying a man wrestling with forces he’s ill armed to oppose demands a higher degree of empathy and range. Washington delivers, investing Whip with profound sadness and fierce pride, determined denial and a rage against the world that’s really anger against himself.

The skill of Washington’s portrayal produces an odd pull and push among viewers. As Whip pours his booze down the drain in one scene and orders another drink in the next, we are pulling for his recovery—and for much of the film it’s easy to also root for his acquittal in the National Transportation Safety Board’s crash investigation, where Whip is represented by his union steward (Bruce Greenwood) and a sly attorney (Don Cheadle). While recovering in hospital after his hard landing, Whip meets the comely junkie Nicole (Kelly Reilly) smoking cigarettes in the stairwell. Soon enough he rescues her from the scummy manager of the fleabag motel where she stays and she tries to rescue him through AA. Their relations play out a bit differently than in a conventional Hollywood drama.

There is comic relief amidst the tragedy of a life gone off course, especially in the form of Whip’s drug dealer buddy (John Goodman) and, for once, good use of familiar rock classics. The Cowboy Junkies’ narcoleptic rendition of “Sweet Jane” accompanies Nicole’s descent into the numbing agony of a fix, and “Sympathy for the Devil” is the drug buddy’s theme. Flight has a happy ending but it’s not an easy one. The choices we make, the screenplay insists, have consequences we can’t evade forever.


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