Many people might expect the story of an airline pilot who saves numerous lives with a quick-thinking strategy to land a plane with mechanical trouble to be one of unabashed, crowd-pleasing heroism. But Flight is not that story.
It’s a complex character study about a deeply conflicted hero whose heroic act exposes the darker side of his personal life to the general public. However, despite a strong lead performance from Denzel Washington, the uneven redemption tale stumbles down the stretch and ultimately fails to soar.
Washington plays Whip Whitaker, a commercial airline pilot whose skill is unmatched, but behind the scenes he’s an alcoholic womanizer in desperate need of a wake-up call.
When he makes a miraculous emergency crash landing of an airliner amid bad weather and a slew of mechanical problems, he is trumpeted as a reluctant hero. Later, however, the investigation reveals Whip’s suspected history of substance abuse when a pair of vodka bottles are found in the trashcan on a flight during which drinks weren’t served to passengers because of turbulence.
While Whip claims mechanical failure caused the crash, the charges of alcoholism hover over him, causing an attempted cover-up with his high-ranking friend in the pilots union (Bruce Greenwood).
Oscar-winning director Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump), who returns to live-action filmmaking for the first time since Cast Away (2000), gives the film an abundance of visual flair, especially during a harrowing plane crash sequence and its riveting aftermath that assures Flight will never be seen on airplanes.
Washington gives plenty of depth to his morally conflicted character, whose brash and charismatic exterior masks internal instability and vulnerability stemming from a personal life that is falling apart. The solid supporting cast includes Don Cheadle, John Goodman and Melissa Leo.
The script by John Gatins (Real Steel) is smart to establish Whip’s flaws before his heroism. Yet as the film progresses, it starts to take some melodramatic detours before turning into a rather generic procedural, with oddball comic interludes, that makes the central premise feel contrived and stalls its own narrative momentum.
Flight wants to be a provocative study of the notion of heroism and karma, but the film betrays itself in the final hour by turning a dark and edgy concept into something more conventional.
Rated R, 138 minutes.