The yammering about "Oscar gold" and Denzel Washington's potential three-peat will soon reach a deafening pitch, but such noise can only embarrass a fine character study like Flight, whose prevailing tone is a heavy, elemental melancholy. The mood is there from the opening pan across the Orlando airport under gray, inclement skies, tilting toward the hotel where William "Whip" Whitaker is waking in a bottle-strewn suite, last night's company fishing her thong from behind a recliner.
Whip is played by Washington, looking fully 50-something by the morning light, heavy and sluggardly. Much the worse for wear after his long weekend and a contentious early a.m. phone conversation with the inevitable ex-wife about the son he never sees, Whip gets himself ready for work with a snort of coke and is young again as he swaggers into the cockpit for a morning flight to Atlanta — Whip, you see, is a commercial-airline captain.
Once in the air, Captain Whip mixes himself a leveling-off screwdriver while addressing his human cargo over the PA. It's not Whip's shabby state, however, but a profound all-systems mechanical failure that eventually puts his plane into a sudden free fall. Drawing on a lifetime of flying experience, Whip improvises a miraculous plan that successfully slows the descent: flying it upside-down, easing it back right-side-up into an eerily serene glide, and clipping the steeple off a rural Pentecostal church before bringing craft and passengers down more or less safely in a field.
Scriptwriter John Gatins has stated that he began the screenplay that would become Flight in 1999, though it is impossible to watch this sequence without thinking of the 2009 Hudson River landing of Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger. Calm and chaos commingle beautifully in the crash-landing set piece as handled by director Robert Zemeckis, making his first live-action film since 2000's Cast Away and having spent the past decade exploring motion-capture CG in the likes of The Polar Express. It is not surprising that Zemeckis' handling of spectacle would be undiminished, but he hasn't lost his touch with actors, either, coaching Washington into one of his rare performances that suggests much more than it shows.
Nearly everyone aboard Whip's plane survives, and though he is blameless for the malfunctions, accountability is still demanded. In order to hush up a medical report of Whip's potent blood-alcohol level at the crash scene and to coach him through the inevitable follow-up investigation, a lawyer, Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle), is brought in to do damage control at the behest of the pilot's union rep, Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood), an old Navy buddy of Whip's and custodian of the open secret of his drinking. Anderson's opposite number is Whip's dealer, Harling, another vet played with dirtbag bonhomie by John Goodman.
For everyone supposedly on Whip's side, only Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a recovering junkie he shacks up with while hiding out from the media, evinces any desire to see Whip get better rather than merely get off the hook. It's never a small task to make goodness compelling, however, and Reilly's function as avatar of holistic health is the film's least memorable element.
Zemeckis is more successful when dealing with equivocal personalities and all the misdirected concern that goes into covering Whip's ass. Particularly good is an antic scene where Lang and Anderson have to call in Harling and his pick-me-ups to get their self-sabotaging, hangover-comatose witness ready to take the stand before a committee. The jargon that Harling spouts while he's cutting lines for Whip, discussing the high-functioning abuser's fine art of "leveling out," will soon be mirrored in Whip's expert testimony on the stand — inverting the plane in free fall, he says, "arrested the descent, allowed the aircraft to level off . . ."
More than acting as a DC-10-size metaphor, this association reinforces the film's ambivalence — what if Whip accomplished his miracle not in spite of but partly thanks to his drinking, through an alcoholic's dead-nerved grace under pressure? An idea of "grace" is always sneaking around the margins of Whip's story, but never in an obvious guise. God is almost literally the co-pilot on that near-fatal flight, in which he's teamed with an evangelical rookie whose prayers are little good in a nose dive.
Stories that deal seriously with the decision to dry out require an anxious sense of a trade-off between items of unknown value: What is gained by giving up that which makes life bearable? Flight communicates this with a light touch — it's in the way that "fly" and "lie" blur together in Whip's mouth; in the way that, by ceasing to do one, he loses the right to do the other. Whip's crisis of conscience leads him, finally, to an act of self-imposed, Dostoevskian exile that can be seen as his only available avenue for redemption — or as a new kind of copping out.
When we catch up with the sober Whitaker, he's far removed from the glamorous, nattily attired Whip who settled into the cockpit. His hair has gone gray and lusterless. He is grounded in two senses of the word, with practically oppositional meanings. And where a lesser movie would reassure us that we've safely reached our destination, Flight stays circling. Whitaker has, as the saying goes, got his life back — but you wonder if he has much more of it to live.