After what was obviously a wild night, a hung-over Whip Whitaker rouses from his stupor. He groggily argues with his ex-wife on the phone, curses, takes a puff from a cigarette, a toke off a joint, and a swig from a stale beer, then oogles his naked bedmate when she walks into his blurry line of vision.
Then all he needs is a wake-up snort of cocaine to clear away the cobwebs, and he’s revved up and off to work---as a commercial airline pilot.
Buckle up, because that’s just the raw, rip-roaring opening of “Flight,” director Robert Zimeckis’ terrific new drama about what goes up, what comes down, and what happens after Capt. Whitaker (Denzel Washington) leaves that hotel room.
At the core of the story is the plane crash around which the rest of the movie revolves. If you’ve seen the previews, you know it’s coming from the moment Whitaker steps onto the plane that fateful, ominously stormy morning. But that doesn’t make it any less traumatizing to watch. A masterful, jaw-dropping sequence of moviemaking, it may just be the scariest, most harrowing, nerve-rattling depiction of an airline disaster ever put on film.
Capt. Whitaker remains calm as his airplane falls apart, loses power and goes down in a plume of smoke, plummeting like a 60-ton missile from the sky. He executes a risky, upside-down maneuver that allows him to slow down the plane enough to plow into a field beside a church, slicing through its steeple, with a loss of only six lives. It’s hailed as a miracle.
The crash, it turns out, may have had nothing to do with Whitaker’s altered state. In fact, the cocaine he snorted after his drinking binge might have made him alert and focused enough to do what no other pilot could have done.
Whitaker blames the crash on defective parts and an aging aircraft. “Somebody put me in a broken plane,” he says. But will anyone believe him, especially if it becomes known the captain’s got a drinking problem, among other addictions?
Washington digs deep into a role that ranks among the trickiest, most finely nuanced of his career. His character is a deeply flawed, fractured “hero,” a man of rank, privilege and aeronautical lineage whose high-flying lifestyle of abandon and arrogance hits a pocket of turbulence that shakes him up in more ways than one.
The attorney (Don Cheadle) hired by the pilots’ union to represent Whitaker in the investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board warns him he could be facing manslaughter charges if the NTSB finds out the captain was juiced when he climbed into the cockpit. The head of the airlines flatly predicts Whitaker will spend the rest of his life in prison.
Do we want him to beat the rap, or get what’s coming to him? Zimeckis, craftily, refuses to point to easy answers about a difficult character in a tough spot. And the script by John Gatins weaves in plenty to ponder, including points about God and faith, fate and choices, broken families and broken people, cover-ups and coming clean, and the grey area between the culture of drugs and the devastation of addiction.
Washington is clearly the movie’s center of gravity, and he holds it sure and steady, appearing in nearly every scene. But he’s surrounded by several noteworthy supporting performers, including John Goodman, trailing bits of “The Big Lebowski” as he literally strolls, big and loud, into two scenes as Whitaker’s drug dealer. Kelly Reilly plays a recovering addict who becomes Whitaker’s soul mate, another broken piece of humanity trying hard to expel the demons he keeps inviting back in.
“Flight” is rated R, and it’s certainly a grown-up movie. But most of its overtly grown-up material is over-and-out after its deliberately provocative opening scene.
From there, it’s a grown-up movie that grown-ups will find all too rare: a smart, probing, grown-up character drama starring one of Hollywood’s most likeable, most dependable actors, throwing himself into a challenging role that dares audiences to go along with him on a flight that may not land exactly where, or how, they’re expecting.