LAKE OCONEE —
Rated R (for drug and alcohol abuse, language, sexuality/nudity and an intense action sequence).
Flight is not “entertainment.” It is more of a “taunt” on film; an exercise in stretching our judging and forgiving instincts. It is about character or the lack of it, self-preservation or self-destruction, and the projection of our false but preferred public image or a wise surrender to seek redemption from our true nature.
Flight opens in a motel room; not seedy, but the scene exhibits heavy smoking, drinking, and sexual activity the night before. A woman, Katarina (Nadine Velazquez) is as naked as naked can be and as flawless as make-up, cosmetology treatments, and plastic surgery can achieve floats about getting dressed…ever so slowly. Meanwhile, in the bed, is bloated Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington), a pilot who clearly is in no shape to fly. But fortified by a full pull from a vodka bottle and a line of cocaine, he heads for the airport to fly right into a storm literally and figuratively.
Any other pilot would have crashed along with all passengers and crew, but not this cowboy. By flying “inverted” he is able to stabilize the plane and crash lands the plane saving all but six on board. This scene is just about as white-knuckle as it can get. And the audience’s gasps and groans nearly match the sounds of the actors playing the passengers.
Anyway, Whip should be a hero, right? No, it doesn’t work out that way since investigators discover he had a .27 blood alcohol level not to mention that white stuff ingested via his nasal passages.
There is a parallel story going on while the plot does its roller coaster ride in the sky. A drug addict named Nicole (Kelly Reilly), has hit rock bottom. Whip and Nicole cross paths. Whip---in a moment of decency---saves Nicole but then Nicole tries to return the favor---only to have Whip go deeper down the dark and sordid well of alcoholism and drugging. She cleans up and goes to AA; he rejects her overtures to save himself.
The investigation looms. Will Whip get away with it? Will cynicism prevail and the injustice system save him to succumb to temptation yet again?
Mr. Washington has worked hard to avoid playing heroes over and over again. He relishes playing the gritty, anti-hero as much as the “good guy.” Here he gets to play perhaps one of his most complex characters. One wants to like the guy and to cheer for him because he is Denzel Washington; but he is unlikeable and despicable so what are we to do?
As I wrote earlier, this is a character study. Our heroes have clay feet; Mr. Washington has worse than clay feet. He probably did not kill those six people (you will have to see the film to know about that) but he is guilty. Will he do the right thing or will he do “the right thing?” And what price is character? What does it cost to surrender, as Abraham Lincoln said, to the “better angels of our nature” and be honorable?
For almost two and a half hours, this morality play “plays out.” I felt spent. I appreciated Mr. Washington’s ability to play a character and not a caricature in Flight. Director Robert Zemeckis tells the tale for adults; it is not a puppet show. It is no easy journey. And yet there is artistry and symbolism in it to give one pause. As the plane comes down, it comes close to a church. Below is a Baptism in a nearby field. What happens next is cinematic but by no means did Zemeckis play to the peasants; it is subtle and has three dimensions. I am not sure of the full meaning; but I will work that out. Like the ending of Flight, it is only the beginning of a process of self-reflection.
Flight made me think of Days of Wine and Roses wherein Jack Lemmon also played a tortured soul who wraps his misery around alcohol and drags himself and others down with him. Days of Wine and Roses brought Mr. Lemmon an Oscar. I think it is safe to say Mr. Washington will be nominated (yet) again for his performance. If you board, buckle up, Flight has plenty of turbulence and you will come away a little more than battered and bruised.
Flight lands with four bow ties out of five.