“Flight” made some noise prior to its theatrical release, but when I asked friends who had gone to see it what it was about, they stressed it was Denzel Washington’s film from start to finish. Of course, most films Washington stars in are his first and foremost, hardly a surprise for an actor with his skills and talents. But there’s much more that his Oscar nominated performance brings to the table in this entertaining, deep and engaging human drama.
Directed by Robert Zemeckis, “Flight” does something I admire in that it starts with its climax and then rebuilds its story in the aftermath, gradually strengthening its foundation in anticipation of its conclusion. The drama fans out there would argue there’s a second climax at the film’s conclusion, much like “A Few Good Men,” where the big deal character conflicts anchor the run time while the big deal character development happens in between. Analysis aside, “Flight” works well because it has a superior lead performance supplemented with dynamic supporting cast members who add layer after layer to the experience.
After a night of drinking with a flight attendant, Captain William “Whip” Whitaker (Washington) rolls out of bed in Orlando less than two hours before duty calls on a mid-morning flight. While his co-pilot, Evans (Brian Geraghty), is straight as an arrow, Whip plays by his own rules, snorting cocaine prior to leaving his hotel and mixing a screwdriver in the galley while addressing his Atlanta bound passengers after takeoff. As the plane begins its final descent, a malfunction generates a dive, leaving Whip at the controls of a disaster in the making. He managers to roll the aircraft and its 102 passengers before a crash landing that knocks almost everyone out cold.
After awakening in the hospital, Whip gradually comes to terms with the accident, NTSB officials and media frenzy. Whip’s colleague Charlie (Bruce Greenwood) is by his side through his first moments after coming to, and as “Flight” progresses, Charlie fills Whip in on how the pilot’s union will support him in the coming weeks. Lawsuits are on their way, as is a full investigation of the aircraft, crew and passengers. We quickly learn Whip struggles with addiction on many levels, evidenced by his pursuit of alcohol, drugs and cigarettes. The film’s remaining run time examines his personal struggle with the accident and his (in)ability to grapple with his substance abuse.
Subplots and colorful characters are all over the place, from a recovering addict named Nicole (Kelly Reilly) who Whip befriends in the hospital, to his profanely obscene yet somehow loveable friend Harling (John Goodman), to a high-flying lawyer named Lang (Don Cheadle) who Charlie hires to make Whip’s infected toxicology report disappear before the NTSB investigation progresses. Whip comes and goes around urban and rural Atlanta, bringing the above individuals into and out of his daily affairs as his life and addiction/abuse spiral toward one another, finally colliding in a hearing where Whip must testify in front of the NTSB, its lead investigator (Melissa Leo) and well-dressed political figures who appear as interested in finding a scapegoat as they are answers.
My brief, abridged plot summary doesn’t really do “Flight” justice. It’s one of those films that you really do need to see to understand and make sense of. I left the theater feeling confused and unsure of what I’d seen, perhaps due to the nudity, excessive drug snorting and drunken stupors that abound. But after reflecting on “Flight,” there is a lot happening all the way through, and it’s that well-orchestrated chaos that helps to deepen and broaden the film’s impact. It’s also pretty well written, with a brutally blunt honesty from the present and humor both old and new (hence the Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay for John Gatins) that grounds the characters in similarity and contrast.
Washington’s fans will be quick to put his performance up among their favorites and his best. Part of me thinks he’s almost as good here as he was in “American Gangster,” but I’d probably have to watch both at least once or twice more each to really make a determination. Make no mistake, he doesn’t hold anything back, and the raw emotion he carries during his hangovers is among some of the deepest I’ve seen in the last few years. At the same time, the pride and integrity he holds as he walks around his aircraft in a torrential downpour or as he reminisces about his father on the family property and being taught to fly on a tiny plane abound just as clearly. Washington’s ability to take characters through emotional centrifuges and also convey those adventures to a viewing audience is a talent I envy and a skill any good film buff can identify from a mile away.
“Flight” is riddled with religious symbolism and references. Depending on your perspective, these exist to distance Whip from those around him or to further validate his role as the anti-hero. It’s possible we’re meant to think that a greater power is watching over him as he struggles his way through the film’s 138 minute run time. Or, maybe it demonstrates a subtle commentary on different crutches we all lean on to make it through the day: some choose substances, others their faith.
The supporting cast is very strong in their own ways, especially Reilly. Whip brings her into his world but she pushes back, a sign her own struggle and recovery are more important to her than his. She’s a strong female lead who models positive attributes for Whip to follow, but his demons, be they addictions, family or fear, get the best of him more often than not. “Flight” is also well-organized and cleanly flows from beginning to end, thereby conquering a fear I have when I notice a film is longer than 2 hours. Personally, I think good films can be as long as they need to be to tell their story. The average attention span in twenty-first century America, however, begs to differ.
A plane crash is just the tip of this film’s iceberg, and the more I think about it, the more there is here to soak up. The filmmaking is balanced, the characters developed and the personal battles one man is forced to encounter hold the audience in check. Unlike films that make you uncomfortable on purpose, “Flight” does so with its indirect commentary and a pointed microscope on one individual who saves so many yet must struggle ever so hard to save himself.
Blu-ray is very, very good to “Flight.” The film’s 2.35:1 original transfer is extra nice in 1080p. The picture is vivid, bright, colorful and clear all the time. I was especially impressed with the sharp editing during the infamous plane crash and how such a confined space like an airplane was made to be more encompassing than it is in reality. Small environments like bathrooms, hotels and hospital beds are expertly placed and timed next to more generous spaces, helping the film achieve a size balance and contrast. Shots from a great distance away are as perfect as close-ups, with little to no grain being visible.
A strong English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack booms with emotion as “Flight” tells its story. Natural background noise, like a beer bottle shattering on a hardwood floor, is as audible as Whip’s defiance when asked about his so-called drinking problem. Surround sound is best for most films, of course, but given how crisp the audio is here, you just might be able to get away without it. Additional audio options include 5.1 Dolby Digitals in French, Spanish and Portuguese. Subtitle options in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese are offered.
This Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack includes standard definition DVD and digital copies of the film, as well as a few behind-the-scenes featurettes that fill audiences in about the film’s journey to the screen, how the filmmakers created the terrifying plane crash, and a Q&A panel highlight reel. UltraViolet from Paramount is also enabled on the Blu-ray disc.
A Final Word:
As I wrote this review, I developed a different liking for “Flight” than I had when I saw it in the theater. There are elements to it I didn’t initially care for, but they seem to have a place in the run time that I better understand thanks to some minor analysis. Washington more than deserves his Oscar nomination for a performance that will hold its own for quite some time, and the film’s indirect commentary on addiction, family and excess are worth noting. It’s quite entertaining, and needs to do very little to snatch and squeeze your attention.