I’ve always been a fan of Denzel Washington. The star has an uncanny ability to inhabit his roles, from a desperate veteran engineer in “Unstoppable” to a postapocalyptic warrior in “The Book of Eli.” And in “Flight,” Washington simply continues his run of outstanding films, turning in a mesmeric performance worthy of an Academy Award.
“Flight” centers on Washington’s character, William “Whip” Whitaker, a pilot tormented by substance abuse. After a night of sex, drugs and alcohol, Whip slips behind the controls of a jetliner…but what happens next is far from routine. Mechanical failure results in a terrifying free fall, and only Whip’s preternatural piloting skills avert a violent crash.
The subsequent investigation, however, is less concerned with Whip’s heroism than with his addictions. Consumed by a mixture of self-loathing and self-delusion, Whip spirals deeper and deeper into a cesspit of degradation. A brief relationship with heroin-addict Nicole (Kelly Reilly) only highlights his condition…a condition which may cost him everything, if his impending National Transportation Safety Board deposition goes awry.
“Flight” is an absolutely harrowing character study, and evokes a level of emotional intensity I’ve rarely seen in any film. Though the film clocks in at 2 1/2 hours, it never drags; Washington’s outstanding performance is primarily responsible for this. Director Robert Zemeckis demonstrates an extraordinary range of artistry that transcends his previous works – remember, this is the man who brought the world a CGI “Beowulf.” Top-notch cinematography and supporting performances
It is critical to note that this is not a film for most viewers, and “Flight” earns every bit of its R rating. A gratuitous nude scene early on is followed by image after image of substance abuse, not to mention the nerve-shredding plane crash (six individuals are killed bloodily by falling debris). At times, perhaps, the fixation on depravity becomes masochistic. One might wonder whether the entire film was funded by product placements on the parts of liquor companies, given the immense variety of beverages onscreen. Whip spends almost the entire film inebriated, and uses cocaine as a means of rousing himself from lethargy.
This is, ultimately, a story of restoration – but “Flight” takes a very, very roundabout road to reaching that point.
The worldview of “Flight” is difficult to discern at first glance. Overt professions of religion are, almost without exception, limited to trite clichés uttered in the wake of the airline accident (“It was God’s will.” “It was a true act of God.” “Praise Jesus!”). These are universally portrayed as grotesque and slavish – fatalistic ways of attempting to understand human failure.
In one of the film’s concluding shots, the camera pans over a copy of Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer – “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Though the effect is subtle, it captures the thematic essence of the film: that while the reasons for some horrific events may not be fully clear on earth, individuals’ moral choices possess fundamental significance. What moral redemption requires of Whip is a singular act of courage: a willingness to admit powerlessness in the face of human weakness.
The film’s view of God is perhaps more akin to the “Higher Power” postulated by Alcoholics Anonymous (a meeting of which enjoys some screen time) than to the God of any particular organized religion. The existence of absolute moral truths, and responsibilities to embrace such truths, however, serves as the linchpin of the movie’s philosophy.
Is it worth seeing? For strong-stomached viewers (i.e. those who can sit through a Tarantino or Scorsese film without fidgeting too much), “Flight” is a masterpiece. Its flaws, naturally, parallel those seen in the works of the aforementioned directors: over-the-top levels of vice, offset only by a too-truncated moral theme. (For that matter, Reilly’s character is artistically underutilized: given that her “spiritual struggle” parallels Whip’s, her character arc is essentially left unresolved.) Furthermore, moments of black comedy are periodically interspersed throughout the narrative – which, while frequently hilarious, feel somewhat jarring against a backdrop of moral crisis.
That said, “Flight” will probably score several Oscar nominations – which it assuredly deserves. Technically, it’s a grand achievement, even if its storyline occasionally fumbles.
Viewers’ ability to appreciate such merits will, naturally, depend on their willingness to endure a dark, dark journey.
An intense, compelling drama-thriller held aloft by Denzel Washington’s brilliant performance.
Normalized Score: 5.8