Roger Zemeckis had an incredible run of successes in the 1980’s and 1990’s with Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the Back To The Future trilogy, and Forest Gump. After 2000’s Cast Away, he turned his focus to motion-capture animation. It was an unfortunate move. His first movies, The Polar Express and Beowulf, managed to recoup their cost, but his later movies didn’t do well, and Disney shuttered his production company after Mars Needs Moms (budget: $150 million; total gross: $21 million). For Flight, he was given a budget of $31 million, bargain basement for an A-list picture these days. Zemeckis has put it all on the screen.
Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington), the son of a crop duster, is a highly experienced pilot with an airline. He’s also a divorced drunk who spends most of his days inebriated, masking the effect of the liquor when he flies by taking hits of cocaine. He’s spent the night before a fateful flight with Katerina (Nadine Valezquez), a flight attendant on his crew who also has substance abuse problems. But they’re both high-functioning drunks who know how to mask their problems. The senior flight attendant, Margaret Thomason (Tamara Tunie), knows Whip has problems, but beyond trying to get him to her church in the hopes of a spiritual intervention, there’s not much she can do about it.
On a short hop to Atlanta, their plane has a catastrophic mechanical failure, sending it diving toward a subdivision. Whip manages to pull the plane out of the dive and gets some control over it, but it’s clear they won’t make it to an airport. He manages to set the plane down in a field near a church with only a few casualties. Sadly one of them is Katerina, who’s killed after saving a passenger. The press hail Whip as a hero, and his airline pilots union rep, Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood), acknowledges that only Whip’s flying kept the flight from ending with the loss of everyone on the plane. But there’s a problem; the FAA has already had blood drawn from Whip that will show he was legally drunk in the cockpit.
While recovering from his injuries in the hospital, Whip meets Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a heroin-addicted photographer who’d been struggling to keep clean but who fell off the wagon and ended up ODing. Whip is sprung from the hospital by his pusher friend Harling Mays (John Goodman). His condo is surrounded by reporters so Whip retreats to his father’s farm where he tries to clean himself up. It isn’t long before the pressure of his situation drives Whip back to booze. He chances upon Nicole again and brings her back to the farm. Perhaps, with each other’s help, they can both stay clean.
Washington goes to an uncomfortable but quite rear place in this character study of a very flawed man. Whip is at times repugnant in his self-justification and self-destruction; at other times he’s heroic as he battles his addiction. The portrayal will likely earn Washington another Oscar nomination, and rightly so. As Nicole, Kelly Reilly is vulnerable and weak, but then finds her inner steel backbone. Reilly has done a lot of work in her native England in TV, including appearing as D.I. Anna Travis in the Above Suspicion series. Most filmgoers would know her as Dr. Watson’s fiancé/wife in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films, though here she completely loses her English accent.
The other supporting characters are stellar, especially Don Cheadle as Whip’s defense attorney who will do whatever he can to keep Whip from facing charges. Goodman only has two scenes, but whenever he appears on screen the energy of the film zips higher. Melissa Leo, an Oscar winner for her role in The Fighter, also appears as the FAA investigator tasked with finding out all that happened on the ill-fated flight.
Zemeckis has filmed an aircraft crash before in Cast Away, but the harrowing scene in Flight outshines that previous work. It’s filmed almost exclusively from inside the plane, focusing on the crew and passengers as they fight to survive the crash. (The mechanical failure that causes the crash in the movie is similar to what brought down a real plane several years ago.)
As noted earlier, Flight was made on a miniscule budget. The good news is it almost recouped the entire budget in its opening weekend. Movie lovers everywhere will say, with heart-felt gratitude, “Welcome back, Mr. Zemeckis; we’ve missed you.”