There’s an unusual moral dilemma at the center of “Flight,” and some hints at exploring how belief in a higher power affects a person’s attitude toward life’s tragedies. But mostly “Flight” is an ordinary drama about addiction and recovery, made somewhat noteworthy by Denzel Washington’s firing-on-all-cylinders performance.
Washington plays Whip Whitaker, a commercial airline pilot who narrowly averts disaster when his plane malfunctions during a routine flight from Orlando to Atlanta. (This sequence alone is harrowing enough to ensure the film will not be a popular in-flight selection.) Whitaker is a hero: the outcome is tragic, but not nearly as bad as it could have been. His quick thinking and expert piloting saved many lives.
The problem is that when he pulled off this amazing feat, he was drunk, high, and sleep-deprived, having spent the night partying with a stewardess. It’s clear that the plane’s mechanical problems would have happened no matter who was flying it, and Whitaker takes some comfort in that knowledge. Still, he knows there’s something inherently wrong with flying a commercial aircraft while blitzed, whether it was a factor in this particular incident or not, and he’s unsure how truthful to be to the government entities investigating the crash.
Until the official hearing, he has to stay clean and sober. This is partially a response to the wake-up call he just had, but also at the insistence of Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle), the airline’s cocky, authoritative attorney, whose client has a vested interest in Whitaker’s intoxication levels being left out of the evidence. In the hospital, Whitaker befriends a recovering junkie (Kelly Reilly) and has a curious one-scene encounter with a philosophical cancer patient (James Badge Dale) who declares: “Once you realize all the random events in your life are God, you will live a much easier life.” That conversation, along with several other elements, including the devout Christianity of Whitaker’s young co-pilot (Brian Geraghty) and his wife, suggests “Flight” is interested in examining faith, God, and fate. But the film doesn’t go anywhere with it.
Robert Zemeckis is the director, returning to live-action for the first time since “Cast Away,” 12 years ago. It’s hard to get a read on what point he’s trying to make here, and John Gatins’ screenplay sends what might be charitably described as mixed signals. Obviously it is a cautionary tale about the perils of addiction, which Washington conveys with more gravitas and actorly devotion than usual. But when Whitaker’s drug supplier, a pony-tailed dynamo played by the always-welcome John Goodman, resurfaces late in the film, it’s to underscore a strangely pro-narcotics message. Maybe the whole movie is a load of hooey. Too bad, then, since so much of it is right on the mark.
C+ (2 hrs., 18 min.; )