FLIGHT. Starring: Denzel Washington, Bruce Greenwood, Don Cheadie, Kelly Reilly, John Goodman, and Melissa Leo. Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Rated MA15+. Restricted. (Strong themes, drug use and nudity). 138 min.
This American drama, which has earned Denzel Washington an Oscar Nomination for a 2013 Best Actor award, tells the story of a middle-aged, regional airline captain, "Whip" Whitaker (Denzel Washington), who on a flight from Orlando to Atlanta on South Jet Air, Flight 227, expertly brings his plane out of a catastrophic dive and saves the lives of 96 of the 102 people on board.
Injured in the crash, Whitaker wakes up out of a coma in hospital to find his friend, Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood) from the Pilot's Union standing by his side. His tests in hospital have shown him to be intoxicated. After a night of sex with a hostess (who was killed in the crash), hard drugs, and alcohol, he flew his plane the next morning stoned, and "high on cocaine". Whitaker finds himself under scrutiny for his toxicology results.
His drug supplier, Harling Mays (John Goodman), sneaks him out of hospital and supplies him with more drugs, and he is checked into a guarded hotel room before his hearing. His Attorney, Hugh Lang (Don Cheadie) succeeds in getting the toxicology report ruled inadmissible on technical grounds, but it is important Whitaker is kept clean. Whitaker appears at his hearing, intoxicated. At the hearing, the lead investigator, Ellen Block (Melissa Leo) concludes that the plane suffered a sudden mechanical malfunction, but pressures Whitaker on the alcohol containers found on board. Reaching the limit of lies, he admits he used them, and flew the plane intoxicated.
This is a movie that mixes good actions with immoral ones, and is provocative in the questions it raises. What store do we place on heroism when the hero is deeply flawed, and the heroic deed may not have been possible without the flaw? What role does coincidence, or randomness play in what the film describes as an "Act of God", and what is the real motivation behind genuine heroism? In the course of pursuing these themes, the movie descends into some murky territory. The lure of sex, drugs and alcohol is ever-present, and it is arguable that Whitaker's turn-around, signalling his redemption, arrives too late. The credibility of his final regret is strained by the the film's heavy-handed ending.
Nevertheless, Washington's acting is wonderful, and Kelly Reilly delivers a particularly impressive performance as a fellow-addict he comes romantically involved with, but who knows she hasn't the strength to help him. The film itself is about serious addiction, and it also builds up good suspense as a legal drama. Essentially, however, it is a provocative action movie, built around the subtleties and complexities of heroism. The special effects in the film are exceptional. Whitaker flies the stricken plane upside down so as to enhance its stability before turning the plane back up for an emergency landing. The ensuing crash is realistic and harrowing, and dramatically spectacular.
The movie's ultimate redemptive message is weak, and the morality of the film leaves much to be desired. And who wants to even think about boarding a plane when the person about to fly it is high on alcohol and cocaine? However, the film is produced, acted, and directed very well, though after seeing it, some may not be all that keen to fly again.
Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
Out 31st. January, 2013.