As Lloyd Bridges says in Airplane!: “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit drinking!” – a declaration he later famously modifies to take in smoking, sniffing glue and doing amphetamines. Before seeing this, I had thought that, between them, and from different directions, Airplane! and the real-time 9/11 drama United 93 had more or less finished off the aeroplane disaster movie. But this flawed yet enjoyable film from screenwriter John Gatins and director Robert Zemeckis proves that it can still be kept airborne, with a little re-invention.
- Production year: 2012
- Country: USA
- Cert (UK): 15
- Runtime: 138 mins
- Directors: Robert Zemeckis
- Cast: Adam Ciesielski, Brian Geraghty, Bruce Greenwood, Carter Cabassa, Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle, John Goodman, Kelly Reilly, Melissa Leo, Nadine Velazquez, Tamara Tunie, Timothy Adam
Flight looks very much like a fictionalised true story, based on some New York Times bestseller. Actually, it isn’t. Gatins has built his film around a single extraordinary detail that emerged from a real-life US air disaster in 2000: the hair-raising theory that a passenger jet in apparently fatal freefall can be made to level out and go into a safe glide, if the pilot can just pull off one particular, terrifying manoeuvre. To try it, he has to be desperate, and probably very drunk.
There is some terrific white-knuckle tension: but where the genre traditionally puts the high aeronautical drama at the very end, Zemeckis wrongfoots the audience as to where in his film the oxygen-mask-dropping crisis is going to come, and what kind of film it is therefore going to be. As well an airplane-disaster movie, Flight is a solemn and faintly anti-climactic tale of personal growth and moral choices, with some religiose murmurings about survival and fate. The story’s central love-interest strand is a bit superfluous (and the movie frankly sags in this area) but its star, Denzel Washington, tackles the juiciest of lead roles with gusto, and the finale is entertaining, when it looks as if our hero’s life has once again gone into a screaming nosedive and is about to make what the airline industry euphemistically calls “uncontrolled contact with the ground”.
Washington is Captain Whip Whitaker, a highly experienced airline pilot who is also a functioning alcoholic. We first see him in a hotel room on a stopover, and here I thought John Gatins was obeying a law of “sexposition”, using sex to spice up exposition scenes. One of these is that when two sleazy guys need to discuss something, they have to do it in a pole-dancing club; another is that when a sleazy guy has to wake up in a hotel room, a naked woman must be getting dressed in the background. Actually, this isn’t quite what’s happening: Whitaker is having an increasingly serious affair with a stewardess, Katerina Marquez (Nadine Velazquez), and poor Katerina is one of Whip’s enablers, the people who cover up his addiction.
Peter Bradshaw, Catherine Shoard and Xan Brooks review Flight Link to video: Flight
Whip has awoken with a massive hangover, so to cure it and generally stay sharp, he takes a python-sized line of coke before heading out to the airport; he struts authoritatively on to the plane (discreetly later than Katerina) and to his young co-pilot’s horror, treats himself to an oxygen livener before takeoff. He and his passengers are to face a horrifying situation, but for Whip, matters just keep getting worse. Using some pretty hefty plot tweaks and narrative contrivances, Zemeckis’s movie plays out to a watchable conclusion. With the help of a beautiful recovering smack addict Nicole (Kelly Reilly) and his toughly loyal colleague Charlie (Bruce Greenwood), Whip must figure out what he must do to stay true to himself. But it could also be that he might need one final volley of substance abuse courtesy of his unspeakable dealer, Harling, played by John Goodman.
In some ways, Washington is giving us a variant on the character he played in Training Day: the uniformed authority figure with some serious off-the-record habits. There is something in Washington’s natural gravitas and bearing which looks fascinating when it is mixed with sin. Washington is also very good at showing how skilled an addict is at “presenting” – at putting on a show of nothing being wrong.
Weirdly, this movie reminded me of an anecdote I heard the veteran performer Thora Hird recount about her father, who told her never to drink before going on stage, and to make a point of telling everyone about this rule. He admitted that she could probably drink a good deal without it affecting her; but the point was that if she made any innocent mistake at all, everyone would say she was a drunk. Poor Whip feels guilty, yet knows that he technically isn’t. Maybe the zing of coke and booze even gave him inspiration at the controls on that terrible flight, but of course Whip knows that whatever the truth, his whole life is crashing. Flight is one of those films which starts to come to pieces when you start thinking about it afterwards, but with Zemeckis at the controls, it’s a very enjoyable watch. Maybe not in-flight, however.