Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle, John Goodman, Bruce Greenwood, Kelly
Reilly, Nadine Velazquez
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Audio: DTS HD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.78:1
Features: See Review
Length: 138 Minutes
Release Date: February 5, 2013
“This was an act of God.”
“Whose God would do this?”
A commercial plane malfunctions mid-flight. The aircraft is forced into a nose-first dive. The pilot, acting almost on instinct, rolls the plane to level it out, then glides it to a landing that no one should have survived. The fact is, only six people on board lose their lives. The pilot is a hero.
But the pilot, it turns out, is also a man with alcohol and drug problems, and in the midst of the awe and appreciation shown for his quick thinking and bold move that averted hundreds of deaths, it comes out that he was under the influence during the flight. But his substance abuse didn’t cause the crash, and despite it, the pilot saved many lives.
Such is the central core of Robert Zemeckis’ brilliant film Flight, which starts off with one of the most harrowing and terrifying action sequences imaginable, but uses that to settle into a thoughtful character study that examines a man with problems thoroughly and honestly. There are no false senses of conflict here to spice up the plot. The man’s biggest enemy? Himself.
The pilot is “Whip” Whitaker (the perfect and Oscar-nominated Washington). He is a veteran flyer and ex-Navy man who also happens to have a very bad alcohol problem…and who is so used to and so good at hiding it, it takes almost the entire length of the story for we, the audience, to fully understand just how bad it is. It cost him his marriage and his relationship with his son. Now, ironically, after pulling off one of the most heroic acts of aviation imaginable, it may cost him his career and his freedom.
On his side is his friend and union representative Charlie Anderson (Greenwood), and union lawyer Hugh Lang (Cheadle). They know that Whip was drunk and using cocaine the day of the flight. They also know that wasn’t the cause of the crash. But a hearing has to take place when there is a crash and loss of life, and if they are going to try and prove the plane was in faulty shape, they will have to do it against those who would rather prove it was pilot error.
In other words, if Whip could only sober up long enough to stay out of the media spotlight and give his testimony, he stands a chance of being remembered for his heroics, not his intoxication, although both sides of the story are equally true.
From AA to inpatient treatment after the crash, he meets Nicole (Reilly), a drug user trying to straighten her life out. She even takes him to an AA meeting at one point, but you can see on Whip’s face that it’s more than just uncomfortable. It’s uninteresting. It’s not that he doesn’t think he has a problem…he has just accepted it and deals with it in his own way rather than trying to rectify it.
What’s fascinating is that this is not some Intervention-styled story the way you might expect. We begin to realize through the script and through Mr. Washington’s performance that Whip’s biggest problem is not actually his alcoholism, but the fact that he’s become far too good at lying about it. He was indeed the kind of man who could show up to fly a plane with booze and coke in his system and still do his job. Even knowing that he could end up in jail based on his performance at his final hearing doesn’t magically awaken and change him.
This is one of the most emotional, deep, and honest character studies I’ve seen in some time. The filmmakers don’t take any easy roads out. A common mistake might have been to have an “enemy” at the hearing who had a personal desire to see Whip fall, but the hearing is bureaucratic and routine. As mentioned before, Whip has only one enemy in the film, and that’s himself.
Denzel Washington is a brilliant actor, and shows us why he is one of the best in the business by portraying Whip not as a raging alcoholic, but as a man who is starting to show some cracks in a lifelong façade. His performance is not about big scenes that involve heavy emoting, but rather, giving us glimpses in his eyes and face at quiet moments that help us reflect on just how far gone he really is. In a year without Daniel Day-Lewis and Hugh Jackman competing, we might be seeing a third Oscar going home with Mr. Washington.
Robert Zemeckis actually had not directed a live-action film since Cast Away more than a decade earlier. It’s easy to see why this was the script that brought him back into the fold. Zemeckis is a very visual director, as showcased by the plane crash sequence, but is also a director who understands the humanity in his characters, whether it’s a man alone with a volleyball or a damaged man whose disguise of competence is wearing away right before our eyes.
In other words, Flight thrills, but the real power and pleasure of the film is the people, not the spectacle.
This is a solid but unremarkable high definition transfer…in other words, no flaws, but nothing that really stands out as memorable about the video. The images are clean and clear, but there are not a lot of cinematographic demands requiring or flaunting the 1080p capabilities.
The HD audio fares about the same…the crash offers plenty of front and rear stage collusion and potent dynamic range, but then the film settles into its character study, where dialogue becomes the norm and more demands are not really made on the system.
There are four short featurettes on the origins, making of the film, and the plane crash sequence, plus some Q&A highlights. There is also a digital copy disc.
Denzel Washington truly adds another impressive and brilliant performance to a résumé already including Glory, The Hurricane, Malcolm X and Training Day. Flight is one of the year’s best films and is not to be missed.