In “Flight,” for which he collaborates with director Robert Zemeckis for the first time, Denzel Washington combines the skills of a pilot-ninja with the substance abuse problems of a Lindsay Lohan. Clearly the director and the actor working together make for great chemistry thanks to their respective skill sets) and yet, “Flight” leaves you wishing for more.
Washington’s Captain Whip Whitaker is no stranger to boozing and snorting cocaine, his bad habits alienating him from his ex-wife and son. When in command of an aircraft, however, he is godlike. His troubling excess of confidence helps raise the stakes, making the film’s edge-of-your-seat action sequence even more thrilling. As the plane suddenly loses control, Whip manages to turn it upside down to, eventually, secure it in landing position, smooth as ice. He’s so calm and collected that he even tells the flight attendant to tell her son she loves him through the black box.
Zemeckis’s savvy for mounting a complicated action sequence is on display here, as was also the case for his previous film “Castaway.” Whip’s quick thinking saves most of the crew and the passengers. Most. Six people die in that accident, among whom was a close friend of Whip’s. The tragedy helps precipitate Whip’s decision to go dry. Sobriety lasts for exactly a couple days until a lawyer for the airline, Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle), shows up with a blood-alcohol-level report that proves damning, even though the crash occurred because of other reasons. As Lang tries to invalidate the study, Whip collapses under the weight of scrutiny retreating into an even more self-destructive lifestyle.
Washington portrays the alcoholic’s cycle (denial, self-pity, inner pain) disturbingly accurately, and with generosity, but, too often, “Flight” feels like it’s wallowing in psychological mud rather than crackling with narrative energy. Moreover, the God’s-plan angle which “Flight” writer John Gatins comes up with ends up providing a very black and white view of morality, when really the emotions involved can be expected to be more complicated.
The rest of the cast drifts in and out of scenes without much rhyme or reason. Kelly Reilly (“L’Auberge Espagnole”) plays a recovering heroin addict who meets Whip in the hospital, but it’s never made clear what the nature of their relationship should be. John Goodman thankfully adds some humor as Whip’s partner-in-crime-slash-best-friend. “Flight” is of course Denzel Washington’s movie, clearly, and he turns in an excellent performance helping to ensure that the film never slides completely into boring territory. But unfortunately “Flight” has too many inconsistencies, and misses too many opportunities, to unequivocally recommend it.