One of the pleasures of Robert Zemeckis’s latest film is the way he introduces Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington), a suave airline pilot who shuffles domestic flights for a living. When Whip isn’t jet setting around America in a JR-88; he is crack sniffing, hard drinking, and getting friendly with beautiful flight attendants.
In theory; he is the archetypal macho high flyer a smooth operator with wind beneath his wings. [can’t bring myself to pass up on corny metaphors.] But in reality; he is a product of vice addiction, in denial of his weaknesses, an antihero with a broken spirit.
The first action occurs during a brief flight bound for Atlanta. Safety is compromised by gathering storm and strong draft; resulting in violent turbulence, which Whip successfully negotiates with his repertoire of strategic moves. But the close call forewarns an even bigger crisis in minutes to come.
At this point, I am tempted to rave in detail about the nerve-wracking sequence preceding Flight’s second mishap—Zemecki lives up to his name as Hollywood’s poster boy for visual effects (A Christmas Carol, The Polar Express, Beowulf, Forrest Gump)—but I’d rather not. Because the next sequence is even more spectacular.
Flight 227 eventually succumbs to technical malfunction, enters a steep dive plunging all the way down for mother earth when Whip is forced to perform one of the riskiest tour de stunt [sic] known in aviation and Hollywood physics — rolling the airplane. Bottom line is; they will inevitably crash. But not before he mitigates foreseeable damage by stressing the jet into inverted position midair. And the elegant touch is this: it is logical insofar as preventing uncontrolled descent is concerned—when the airplane flips, it regains balance and altitude. Of course, the speed and precision in timing required of this maneuver is easier said than done. Which is why Whip emerges from the harrowing escape a public hero; whose talent as a pilot reduced impact upon crashing, thereby saving many lives on board. Yet things get complicated because this film is more than mind blowing action; this unique aspect justifies Denzel Washington’s Best Actor, and John Gatin’s Best Original Screenplay nominations in this year’s academy awards.
An investigative agency responsible for assigning
blame accountability launches inquiry into parties involved: the airline, aircraft manufacturers, crew members. With commercial and financial interests vested in their verdict, all the hero-worship is not enough to pardon Whip’s liability as sole authority in the cockpit. And to further implicate him; toxicology screens taken while he was unconscious reveal damning proof of alcohol and cocaine. From the angle of negligence, being incarcerated for manslaughter is a concrete possibility. Herein lies the thick of Flight — under that veneer of cool amidst the chaos hides a tired, passive-aggressive man. He sabotages legal aid granted by the pilot union; sinks low into the deep end of shame and self-destruction. As the plot gradually unfolds in the second act of this riveting film, the observer (viewer) is being persuaded into private dimensions—there are moral impasses that underpin Whip’s rational imperative.
Many stories have explored virtue and redemption with utilitarian narratives, but few managed to do so without being cliché. Flight stands out with sleek cinematic language in an authentic way. The result is a stylish synthesis of figurative dilemmas, steered by visual and postmodern wit.