In the very first scene of Robert Zemeckis’s new film Flight, commercial airline pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) awakens in a hotel room with a naked stewardess. He then unleashes a torrent of f-words on a phone call from his ex-wife, whilst snorting cocaine to counteract the affects of the previous nights heavy drinking. With his first live-action film in some time, Zemeckis evidently wanted to make it clear from the outset that this is not a film for children!
From there the first act deals with how Whip lands a doomed plane in a spectacularly unorthodox fashion and saves most people on board, despite being drunk and wired. This moment equals the crash sequences in Alive and Fearless for sheer arm-gripping terror, and is a properly traumatic moment. After the crash all kinds of questions are asked by unions, manufacturers and other investigators when it is revealed Whip had alcohol in his system at the time of the crash.
In his role as a “functioning” alcoholic, Denzel Washington is outstanding and rightly Oscar nominated. His performance dominates the piece and he has earned a place in the pantheon of great screen drunks (alongside Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend, Michael Caine in Educating Rita, Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas and so on). There is good support from Bruce Greenwood, Kelly Reilly, Don Cheadle and John Goodman, who pops up in a couple of scenes as Whip’s comic relief drug dealer friend.
Morally the film is redemptive in its message about how lies prevent recovery from addiction. There are also strong suggestions that God allows tragedy for a purpose, although not presented in an entirely theologically sound light. The afore-mentioned nudity, bad language and drug use is worth mentioning for those who appreciate warnings about such things, but all things considered the context mostly justifies their inclusion. I say mostly because that nude scene at the beginning does seem rather gratuitous, at the risk of sounding like a prude.
In short, Flight is a finely acted, dramatically satisfying piece well worth a look.