By Carl Kozlowski
Whip Whitaker is the kind of guy who lives life in a perpetual swagger. He sleeps with incredibly beautiful women, drinks people under the table and snorts cocaine before showing up for a busy day at work.
Of course, this is the kind of lifestyle that normally leads to an eventual crash and burn. But what really makes that a problem for Whip is the fact that he’s an airline pilot who is responsible for the lives of hundreds of people at a time.
Whip is the lead character in the new movie Flight, which marks the return to live-action filmmaking by director Robert Zemeckis, who has spent a decade attempting to bring to life motion-capture animation films like The Polar Express and Beowulf. And it is a welcome return, as Zemeckis stretches himself in ways that he never has before in a career largely marked by family-friendly classics like Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Forrest Gump, bringing an underlying sense of humanity to a film that depicts a man who’s nearly lost his own.
The film also marks just the second R-rated film in Zemeckis’ career, and it hits hard with its unflinching portrayal of Whip’s wild lifestyle. The first image onscreen is a close-up of a voluptuous woman’s bare breast, pulling back to reveal that she’s a stark naked flight attendant waking up after an all-night, drug and alcohol-fueled romp with Whip — less than two hours before they’re due for a flight.
Drinking, swearing and coke-snorting his way to a state of bare functionality, Whip finds himself taking the controls of his jet with 102 passengers on board and a new co-pilot who’s a devout Christian and giving him the evil eye for his nearly obvious inebriated condition. Things get worse when they are forced to fly into a raging storm that could give Hurricane Sandy a run for its money, but Whip initially appears to guide the plane to safety.
Just when Whip thinks he’s pulled off another harrowing dance on the edge of danger, however, the plane starts freefalling. Whip is forced to think fast, eventually ditching all the fuel and flipping the plane upside down to force a slow-down in the plane’s descent before improbably guiding it to a mostly safe crash landing that saves the lives of 96 passengers, but still kills six people.
Whip is suddenly a national media star, with his landing hailed as miraculous. But he’s a defiant nonbeliever, laughing in the face of everyone’s comments about God and Jesus being there for him, yet wracked with a guilty conscience for his carousing. He’s also filled with fear that someone will expose his behavior, which could cost him his pilot’s license, career and a long stint in prison.
But even as he tries to hide from both the media and federal crash investigators, this divorced and distant father finds himself falling for a woman he meets in the hospital. It’s in this middle stretch of the film that Flight nearly loses its taut grip on the audience after the harrowing first half-hour. The script by John Gatins (Coach Carter) appears to be falling into a formula tale of addiction and recovery. But just when you want to roll your eyes in disappointment at this apparent descent into predictability, the film rights itself with a jaw-dropping third act that should impress viewers.
Kudos must be given to incredibly strong performances, with Washington perhaps leaping into the lead for yet another Oscar following his wins for Glory and Training Day. He won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of a similarly out-of-control cop in Training Day, largely because of the utter shock he induced in viewers who were used to seeing him portray virtual saints. This time, his performance is even stronger, because we now know he’s capable of portraying reprehensible behavior, only here he makes the character somewhat sympathetic.
But best of all is John Goodman as Denzel’s friend and coke dealer, adding another notch to his career of iconic supporting roles with a character that could be the brother of his Walter in The Big Lebowski. Rarely has there been an actor who produces an audible gasp of joy from audiences the moment he appears onscreen, but Goodman is one of them, and his daring, pedal-to-the-metal performance is just another reason that Flight soars.