“Say, ‘I love you, Trevor'”
I’m going to chalk Flight‘s failure up to Robert Zemeckis being away from live action dramas too long. Manipulation works in children’s cartoons like his The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol because you’re supposed to be preaching some sort of morality lesson on the impressionable through a fun, heartwarming tale. For adults, however, more intrigue than a cool concept left neutered in lieu of showcasing its leading man’s inner turmoil is necessary. Yes, much of the blame lays in the hands of screenwriter John Gatins and his penchant for work dripping in sentimentality—see Hard Ball, Coach Carter, and Real Steel—but Zemeckis didn’t have to take the job. He could have picked any script to show he knows how to be dark and edgy, this shouldn’t have been it.
It’s too bad too because it starts off so good. With flashbacks to Magic Mike and Olivia Munn traipsing around topless for little reason, we’re introduced to Captain Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) rising after a three-day bender while flight attendant Trina (Nadine Velazquez) gorgeously leaves nothing to the imagination. This is our ‘hero’: an alcoholic ladies’ man who uses cocaine to equalize so he can fly a plane with 102 innocent souls to Atlanta in the midst of a horrid storm. His character possesses little gray area as not even a conversation with his ex-wife about their son’s education can elicit a shred of redemption. No, only when he is in the cockpit navigating through malicious clouds can we see what this troubled man has to offer humanity.
Overly confident and unflappably cool, he calms the passengers down while pouring another drink and shows us the legitimate trust he has from his crew. They all love him and willingly put their lives in his hands despite knowing the insanity he puts his body through on a daily basis. So it’s completely believable watching him rise to the occasion after being jostled awake from a drunken blackout at the yolk to do the impossible when everyone else freaks out around him. Barking orders with a delicate touch, he’s either a genius pilot, immensely lucky, or in need of thanking the scientist who first cooked cocaine for giving him the sharpness necessary to save all but six people via his unorthodox landing.
What I didn’t see coming was Whip’s heroism becoming part of God’s plan to test and place him on the road towards confronting his demons. I honestly have no clue how a dramatic thriller about a checkered hero could deviate so fully from its plot to become something completely different. I was utterly captivated for the first thirty minutes as we started falling down the rabbit hole of truth to see the consequences of this pilot’s actions. Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood) and Hugh Lang’s (Don Cheadle) arrival to coach Whip on how to beat an incriminating toxicology report welcomingly wants to delve into the maneuvers necessary to survive an impending NTSB investigation. But do we get to see this legal tug-of-war underlying the whole film? Of course we don’t.
Why would Zemeckis and Gatins want to show what we came to see? Whip was drunk and high? Don’t fret; we’ll get the report expunged. A bad ass NTSB agent seen only from behind is going to come at them hard? Eh, we’ll just forget her until the final fifteen minutes reveals she’s Melissa Leo and less formidable than conveniently placed. And what about needing Whip to acknowledge his addiction and stop lying to his loved ones? No, we’ll just create a similar character in Kelly Reilly‘s Nicole and have them meet in contrived circumstances before letting her get sober so he can fall further into oblivion. Why show what’s actually happening with the case when we can simply watch a deplorable man’s selfishness for two hours?
It’s not even that Washington is bad—he’s just given so little room to evolve. At times laughable, his stupors ultimately become boring as their repetition leaves us numb. He’s a jerk and deserves whatever punishment may come his way, so watching his absolution at every turn only made me angry. Are we teaching people that being a detriment to society and boozing around has no consequences besides nagging guilt? Is Flight really about guilt and regret standing in the way of a bad man finding peace? A liar through and through, the film ultimately comes down to what lie is he unwilling to tell. Honestly, I hoped he wouldn’t reach a breaking point but instead get hit by a bus in karmic retribution.
The last straw, however, was watching the one man positioned to take Whip down change his tune a split second after projecting anger. “No, don’t go, all that stuff I just said was the me before God helped me forgive you. Let’s pray.” The single most hilarious moment in the film, it proved nothing but how hamfisted its desire to be parable was. And this is after the intentional comedic infusion courtesy of John Goodman‘s gimmick of a drug dealer set clumsily to The Rolling Stones “Sympathy for the Devil”. There are simply too many moments where I found myself exasperated at what was transpiring. Every time things started looking up the real conflict was swept under the rug so Denzel could mug for the camera.
Even Reilly—who is fantastic—becomes little more than a pawn in God’s hands. The periphery is full of cool ideas and true mystery into what happened at 30,000 miles, but Zemeckis and Gatins are more interested in getting their star a Best Actor nomination than telling a captivating story. Only James Badge Dale‘s brief part as a chemotherapy patient gives a moment of authenticity despite his contrived meeting with Whip and Nicole in a hospital stairwell for a smoke. Dale steals the film and marks exactly when its decline began. I came for the aftermath of a plane crash and only received a high-functioning alcoholic. I should have stayed home and popped in Leaving Las Vegas instead.
 Photo credit: Robert Zuckerman. Denzel Washington is Whip Whitaker in FLIGHT, from Paramount Pictures. (c) 2012 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
 Robert Zuckerman. (Left to right) Bruce Greenwood is Charlie Anderson, Don Cheadle is Hugh Lang and Denzel Washington is Whip Whitaker in FLIGHT, from Paramount Pictures. (c) 2012 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
 Photo credit: Robert Zuckerman. (Left to right) Denzel Washington is Whip Whitaker and Kelly Reilly is Nicole in FLIGHT, from Paramount Pictures. (c) 2012 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.