Denzel Washington delivers a fine, magnetic performance as veteran pilot Whip Whitaker. If that was all there is to Flight, I could highly recommend it. But it's the film's narrative that lets him — and us — down. Perhaps by not working too hard for our sympathy, Flight stakes its claim to realism. The problem is that it doesn't explore the complexities, contradictions and inner struggles we want to learn about. It's a character study without the study.
Whip is a crackerjack pilot. He’s also a highly functioning alcoholic who is able to save most of the passengers when the airliner he captains malfunctions. The kicker to all this? He’s well over the legal limit at the time. In the NTSB investigation of the crash, toxicology reports turn the attention to Whip, who has allies in the pilot’s union working on his behalf to cover their ass as much as his.
The plane's crash landing is tense, if a little out there (at one point, Whip flies upside down). While in the hospital, he falls for a junkie (Kelly Reilly) trying to right herself (she has also lost her family to addiction). Reilly (Sherlock Holmes) gives a tender, sympathetic performance as a character whose inner strength contrasts with Whip’s constant lapses into inebriation. But the story never stares down the issue of chemical dependency. Does Whip even have a chemical dependency? We don't know, and the film doesn't appear concerned to ask. Here's what we do know: Whip's a drunk, and he knows it. And he's fully aware (and angry at himself) that it cost him his wife and son.
Flight is notable for marking the first live-action film Robert Zemeckis has directed in 12 years. Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump) is a good director. He can be a sensitive director. But his commercial instincts sometime run counter to the story being told. Zemeckis also goes with a clichéd soundtrack featuring movie staples like the Rolling Stones' “Gimme Shelter” and “Sympathy for the Devil” — songs that suggest a lurid fascination with Whip’s condition. They also add to the movie's cynical, juvenile romanticization of addiction.
However, there are moments of honesty that are refreshing: The sight of Whip emptying out bottles, only to regress, is effective and believable. Washington is helped by a fine supporting cast, led by Bruce Greenwood (Star Trek, I’m Not There) and Don Cheadle (Iron Man 2, Ocean’s 11). John Goodman, who commands the screen in his brief role, plays Denzel’s Dr. Feelgood like comic relief. You'll laugh, but the cartoonish character feels out of place.
Washington holds the center of the movie, but we don’t get to Whip's core. That, too, may be by design, as Whip admits he doesn’t know who he is. But it doesn’t make for interesting entertainment or art. Flight is better as a series of interesting, dramatic scenes than a film. It’s less than the sum of its parts.