A pilot, a drug addict, and a cancer patient walk into a stairwell. No, that’s not the beginning of a bad joke, but it is the beginning of a moment at which three people have reached a certain point in their lives and need to make decisions, follow paths, and choose sides. Those decisions might be whether or not to ever touch a needle again, take a drink again, or resign yourself to the belief that God has the power to give you cancer as well as take it away.
In Flight, Capt. “Whip” Whitaker (Denzel Washington) and his plane are plunging towards Earth in a devastating dive due to a mechanical failure in the tail section of his plane. While everyone else understandably freaks out, his aeronautical knowledge and ability allow him to pull the aircraft from certain disaster. His flight experience and ability are not as interesting as his emotional ability to have done so. Although you may have heard or seen clips of that moment, I refuse to give you the details. But there are other details that need to be known.
Let’s go back to the stairwell, which is in a hospital, which is where Whip and Nicole (Kelly Reilly) first meet after their own personal crashes. Nicole’s crash is through a hypodermic fix and Whip’s from the plane that tore the steeple off a church before gouging a field. They both have substance abuse issues, but only one is willing to admit and do something about it. Nicole’s interest is a genuine want to help Whip, but Whip’s interest is just a want. Like a wanting of a kindred spirit, someone who might join him when it’s time to uncork another bottle or straighten another line. He carries himself as if a pilot’s license is also a license that gets him past velvet ropes of a club or the best table in the restaurant. However, that license is worthless when the cancer patient in the stairwell provokes thoughts about what role God plays in our foibles. If he could give us cancer, can’t he take it away? Should we wonder why he gave it to us, or just accept our fate and move on? Or, should we work to change our fate – if we even have one?
However, no velvet ropes can separate him from the deaths of six people on board his plane. True, had he not done an impossible flight maneuver, it would have been all 102 dead instead of just six, but even just one death counts, and the government wants answers. Assigned to help Whip are pilot union representative Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood) and Chicago attorney Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle). Unfortunately for Whip, neither of them can supply the help brought by long-time pal and hippie Harling Mays (John Goodman), who knows exactly which chemical supplies are needed to wake Whip up, which also means feeding his addictions. The union and the attorney want to keep Whip clean and sober until his hearing with the NTSB, while Harling wants to keep him awake and aware. At this stage in Whip’s dependency, awake and aware are not reached by staying clean and sober.
After a handful of animated features, Flight is the first live-action film for director Robert Zemeckis since Castaway in 2000, and he certainly picked a script with challenges. Flight very bravely tackles two elusive items at the same time. First, when do the means justify the ends? If I throw a rock at a pleasant neighbor but miss and instead hit a dog that was about to bite a child, I know I’m not a hero, but should the results be ignored? I saved a kid, dammit! Second, how do you convince an audience to feel sympathy for someone who clearly did something so wrong that six people are dead? Proof that television has figured that out is the long-running show House. Hard to imagine a more well-liked douche than Dr. House. As for Whip, leave that to the talents of Zemeckis who guided Washington to a Best Actor nomination through a script nominated for Best Screenplay at the upcoming Oscars. He won his own Best Director Oscar for Forrest Gump back in ‘94.
I’m not saying that you will actually like or sympathize with Whip. He’s a liar. He knows and admits it. Credit Zemeckis for not helping us to like Whip. He could have easily planted abusive parents or a childhood tragedy that caused Whip’s substance abuse issues, but he didn’t because that might have seemed like an excuse – and there are no excuses. For Nicole, her substance issue has reasons but no excuses either. She’s on hard times, behind on rent, and it is suggested that at one time she may have picked up extra money doing porn, but she shows limits and standards. Reilly (Sherlock Holmes) brings a little sympathy out of us by trying to bring Whip to an AA meeting, but Zemeckis keeps her from going overly righteous and preachy. John Goodman brings a change of pace as the easy-going hippie, druggie connection, but it’s a comic relief that seems out of place. There’s nothing to laugh about in Flight, and I was disappointed that the seriousness was broken just for a few drug jokes.
Flight isn’t really Oscar worthy. Not many films are, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see it. The first ten minutes are full of nudity, but it mainly goes away after that. Whether that’s good or bad is up to you. What shouldn’t go away are the numbers of people looking to pick up Flight at your nearest Redbox location. For only about a buck, it is well worth the trip. Teacher gives it an A-, slightly downgraded for ill-timed and out of place humor during a very serious trip. No pun intended.