Airline pilot Whip Whitaker (Washington) lands a stricken jet during a storm. But, as he's hailed as a hero by the media, Whip has a dark secret: he's an alcoholic, who was drunk while flying the plane...
Robert Zemeckis has spent most of the last decade on his one-man mission to make mo-cap matter, fiddling around with CG trains, flying Jim Carreys and movies that are, y’know, for kids. Zemeckis would tell you that he has nothing to prove with Flight, his return to live-action directing, but the opening scene alone is quite a statement. We start with breasts. Blurry, out-of-focus breasts, yes, but breasts nonetheless. From there, Zemeckis introduces us to a typical morning-after environment — naked girl, whom we presume is a hooker, wakes up in hotel room with bleary-eyed guy, after a night on the tear. They stumble around, have a hair-of-the-dog drink and spliff, and it’s only from their small talk that you piece together the horrifying truth: he, Denzel Washington, is an airline pilot; she, Nadine Velazquez, is an air stewardess, and they’ve got a flight in less than two hours. Nudity, drug use, swearing, seriousness: it’s the most adult film of Zemeckis’ career, and by the time he out-Scorseses Scorsese with a camera zoom into Washington’s coked-up kisser, it feels very strongly like a director deliberately putting away childish things.
It’s an eye-catching start, and Zemeckis almost immediately follows it up with the eponymous flight, which ends — unsurprisingly — in tragedy. Zemeckis has thrown planes around on screen before, in Cast Away, but his Flight sequence is the best of his career. It’s a triumph of tension worthy of Hitchcock himself, throwing together a series of suspects (a horrible storm; Whip’s bag-of-nerves rookie co-pilot; mechanical problems; Whip’s inebriation, enhanced by the three vodka minis he consumes mid-flight) and keeping us guessing about which one will be responsible until the plane lurches earthward, throwing passengers and stewardesses around. But it’s here that one of Flight’s most interesting wrinkles takes shape — while all around are losing their heads, Washington’s Whip remains totally calm, implementing a manoeuvre (turning the plane upside-down to reduce speed and blow out engine fires) that saves the day, and leads to just six fatalities. We’re later told that ten pilots, using a simulator, couldn’t do what Whip does, which could be read as a sop to movie-star vanity, but also — more disturbingly — that he flew so well not despite his drunkenness, but because of it.
When sequences and subversive thoughts like this abound, Flight — yes! — soars. One scene, in which corporate suits who’ve turned a blind eye to Whip’s condition in order to avoid a huge payout have to enlist a drug dealer to help him come out of his latest nosedive, could well be the most inappropriately funny moment of the year so far, while there’s a nice line of thought about our innate need to anoint heroes in times of crisis, and see only what we want to see. But, eventually, we’re left with a study of addiction that tries its best to skirt cliché, but which ultimately finds it unavoidable, as Whip sinks into a spiral of depression and drink. It’s brilliantly acted, of course — Washington, who hasn’t been nominated for an Oscar for a decade, let alone won one, is mesmerising as a proud, complex, far-from-heroic man whose myriad flaws are circling like vultures, while Kelly Reilly is a revelation as the cracked fellow addict who forms a tad-too-convenient relationship with Whip. Zemeckis places a sure hand on the tiller, a few painfully obvious song choices aside (the use of Sweet Mary Jane and Under The Bridge to underscore scenes of drug use should be outlawed), but there’s nothing here to match the jolt of the first ten minutes, as complexity gives way to convention.
A welcome return to live-action filmmaking for Zemeckis, who hasn't lost his knack for a brilliant shot or for extracting great performances. It may not exactly be a first-class experience throughout, but theres nothing wrong with premium economy.