Captain Whip Whitaker is an excellent pilot who saved himself and almost everyone on board his crippled commercial airliner with a daring in-air maneuver few pilots could manage: turning the sinking craft upside down to stabilize the plane's descent long enough so he could attempt to land it in a field.
"No one could have landed that plane like I did," he says. "No one."
To the media and the nation, Whitaker is a hero.
Then a toxicology report threatens to upend this paragon of bravery, nerves, and skill; Whitaker stepped on board the plane with enough alcohol in his blood to exceed the legal limit several times over. There was cocaine in his system as well. Whitaker is an addict, but does that mean he's no longer a hero?
This question resides at the core of Flight, a terrific new drama starring Denzel Washington as Whitaker and directed by Robert Zemeckis in a welcome return to movies that matters for both.
It's also an important issue worth exploring, especially in our hero-worshipping, media-driven culture. We love to build up so that we may then tear down.
But Flight reminds us that heroes are not just important flashbulb role models that quickly catch our attention and just as quickly disappear.
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With Whitaker, the revelation of his taking the wheel under the impairment of alcohol and drugs would be a seismic shift in who shoulders the blame for the crash and the bills from the inevitable lawsuits. He would face prison time, and his airline could be sued into bankruptcy for allowing him to fly in that condition.
As it is, the aircraft's manufacturer is under intense scrutiny. Equally concerned for Whitaker's plight is the pilots union, and how the results of the crash investigation will reflect on its organization. Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood), a longtime friend of Whitaker's, offers his support, but his alliances are clearly with that of his employer, the union.
With so much money and so many careers at stake over one man's addiction issues, a top lawyer (Don Cheadle) is enlisted to protect Whitaker from himself and others, including his colorful drug dealer pal played by John Goodman whose almost every appearance on screen includes a Rolling Stones song.
As with so many who struggle with substance abuse, Whitaker is a good man given to increasingly poor and self-destructive decisions driven by his addiction. In a role easily played for too little or too much audience empathy, Washington shows restraint and delivers an astonishing, moving, and bewildering portrait of a crisis-made hero in more control of a crashing plane than his own life.
Flight's screenwriter, John Gatins (Real Steel), also inserts another addict in Whitaker's life: Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a professional photographer whose life has spiraled downward because of heroin.
Nicole represents the ability for personal redemption and change, and as she begins to straighten out her own life — perhaps by its default status for addiction issues, Alcoholics Anonymous receives serious product placement in the film — it is Whitaker who is losing his. Already, his drinking has cost him his marriage and a relationship with his son, now a teenager. Even Nicole reaches the point where she can no longer be around him, leaving Whitaker to his vices, and to those who need him to stay sober just long enough that the investigation into the crash is finished.
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Again, it's a testament to Washington's soaring performance that we continue to root for Whitaker to find the strength to turn around his life. Too long Washington has settled for starring roles in films less than his talent and it's a welcome change to see him again push himself on screen. And for Zemeckis, Flight is a welcomed return for the filmmaker to flesh-and-bone actors on screen and not a high-tech and often creepy animated version, as with his previous three films. This is his best and most ambitious film since Forrest Gump, also a film about a hero. Our media culture would suggest one hero is better than the other. Flight suggests otherwise.
Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Screenplay by John Gatins. A Paramount Pictures release, playing at Rave Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers and Levis Commons. Running time: 139 minutes. Rated R for drug and alcohol abuse, language, sexuality/nudity, and an intense action sequence.
Critic's Rating: ****
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-734-6734.