The film has received somewhat mixed reviews since its release on the other side of the Atlantic late last year however what has not been in doubt is the quality of Washington’s performance. It earned him a well-deserved nomination for Best Actor at the Oscars though one which he is unlikely to win given the unstoppable freight train that is Daniel Day-Lewis in award season. Washington plays the alliteratively named Whit Whitaker, a full time commercial airline pilot with an equally full time alcohol and drug addiction. We first meet Whitaker on the morning after the night before, slumbering in a messy hotel room strewn with empties with a naked woman beside him.
He is soon up and about and after a quick line of blow he is out the door where we are shocked to learn, or would be if we hadn't chosen to see the film, that Whip is an airline captain and the aforementioned woman a stewardess. Bleary eyed and under the influence he takes control of his plane for the short hop flight from Orlando to Atlanta. There we meet his young co-pilot who frowns and tut-tuts but otherwise does nothing. After guiding the plane through some early turbulence, a scene which establishes that half-cut or not Whitaker can fly a plane better than most, Whip settles down to a triple vodka and orange juice before a light nap which allows the young co-pilot to take over. However the plane suffers a mechanical failure and Whip is woken to the sight of his plane in a rapidly descending nose dive with the earth rushing up to meet him. It is perhaps one of the most spectacular air crash scenes since Tom Hanks was Cast Away, which is incidentally also a Robert Zemeckis film. Of course, Whip manages to avert disaster by flipping the plane upside down and flying inverted thus avoiding the nose dive. The plane glides to a landing in a field with only 6 casualties. Whip is a hero, at least until the toxicology reports show that he was drunk and high while driving the plane. However events and people begin to conspire to keep Whip out of trouble for their own ends. We meet his dealer, an entertaining turn from John Goodman. There is his well-meaning union rep played by Bruce Greenwood and their appointed attorney Hugh Lang played by the always excellent Don Cheadle. Together they want to keep Whip out of prison regardless of how much they enable his alcoholism and drug addiction. Indeed perhaps the only person with his interests in mind is the recovering junkie Nicole, played by Kelly Reilly, who Whip picks up along the way.
Ultimately the film is tale of a man coming to terms with his own demons even if he has to go to great lengths before he realises the extent of his troubles. This may not be the kind of movie many people expected to see given the advertising campaign which preceded it. That’s not to say it is a bad film, it’s not, and is entirely worthy in its cause but might explain some of the negative reactions. The problem is that it is just not terribly compelling. Sure Denzel Washington is excellent but so what. There is little real drama here and a pat ending which you will see coming a mile away.
Another irritant and this is something which must be incredibly obvious if I managed to pick up on it while watching the film rather than reflecting on it afterwards, is the sheer obviousness of some of the musical cues in the film. In almost every scene the music will be a direct reference to the events on screen. Nicole is shooting up heroin; well here comes Red Hot Chilli Peppers with "Under the Bridge", a song about shooting up heroin. When John Goodman’s coke dealer arrives, guess what his signature tune is? Yes, it’s "Sympathy for the Devil" by the Stones. When Whip tries to quit drinking and pours away his remaining liquor bottles, we are treated to Bill Withers singing "Ain’t No Sunshine". When Whip does coke, we get Joe Cocker singing "Feelin’ Alright" because he does you know.
It is breath-taking how overtly obvious some of these song choices are. It could only be made worse by the addition of a commentary track telling you how to emotionally react to each scene. So there you have it, a couple of spectacular actions scenes, a broken man seeking redemption and some hackneyed musical choices, Flight.