Zimbio Review: 'Flight' Soars Thanks to Denzel Washington

(Paramount | Getty Images)
The Bottom Line
Should you see it?

Denzel's layered performance is reason #1, but Flight is also a new kind of film for Robert Zemeckis. He has fun making a R-rated movie.
Whip Whitaker slides into the pilot's seat and takes a deep breath on the oxygen mask positioned to his left. He turns to his co-pilot, "Want a hit?" The co-pilot nervously shakes his head. It's 20 minutes into the movie, and it's going to be a bumpy ride, but it's nothing Whip can't handle. High on coke, oxygen, and carrying a .24 blood alcohol level, he takes control of a nose-diving aircraft by flying it upside-down, leveling off enough to crash it in a field, and saving almost 100 lives.

Robert Zemeckis introduces us to Whitaker (Denzel Washington) in the morning. A lone camera watches him wake up with his very naked girlfriend in a hotel room. Whip argues with his ex-wife as the camera follows the girl around the room. She gets dressed slowly. Zemeckis is bringing us into Whip's world. The man parties hard, he sleeps with beautiful women, and he blows cocaine for breakfast.

He and the girlfriend, a flight attendent named Katerina (Nadine Velazquez), head to the airport. That's where Whip hits the oxygen and runs into trouble. Things happen fast, but Zemeckis doesn't just knock the plane out of the sky. The beginning of the flight prepares us for the crash as Whip flies through a storm to find clear skies. The camera frantically buzzes around the cockpit: dials bug out, Whip barks orders, the stick and throttle shake, back to Whip, more dials. The suspense is in not knowing when the crash will come, and Zemeckis uses some old-school Back to the Future-type action to set it all up. 

Zemeckis created a fantastic plane crash sequence in Cast Away, but this is something different. We see, first-hand, the action while a plane is going down. The rookie co-pilot is terrified, the flight attendants brave, and in the middle of it all Whip is self-assuredly issuing instructions. In crisis-mode, Denzel is the calm eye of the tornado. There's no one better.

Following the crash, Flight becomes a character study. We learn Whip's not just some high-functioning drunk, he's a full-blown addict. But he's not without his limits. Whip swears off drinking in the days after, pouring out every liquor bottle and emptying his assorted stashes. Sadly, his sobriety soon ends in a binge that begins with him swigging a handle of vodka in a parking lot. As he hides from the press and meets with airline officials and lawyers, who've discovered he was high and drunk on the flight, Whitaker begins to self-destruct. Rather than face the truth, he lies and hides out with a beautiful, but troubled, girl (Kelly Reilly) he met at the hosptial. 

Like Leaving Las Vegas, Flight shows the disintegration of an addict in a downward spiral while also depicting the joy of the lifestyle. Addicts love being addicts, and Washington revels in every drink, every line, and, especially, every cigarette. He embraces the ritual of the smoke, the hand movements, the licking of the lips, and firing it up. Washington has an affair with each one. 

While some of the drunken exploits and fumbling around are overdone, and sometimes outright goofy, Washington gives Whip a soul. Drunk or not, he saved lives by landing that plane the way he did. While the press thinks he's the Sully Sullenberger-type, the airline is looking for a scapegoat, and a final deposition scene attempts to put it all to rest.

The supporting cast includes Bruce Greenwood and Don Cheadle as a union head and a lawyer trying to help Whip stay clean and stay out of jail. Reilly is strong as the wounded, immature Nicole, who becomes Whip's live-in girlfriend. And, a coked-up, gregarious John Goodman gets the laughs as Whip's quick-talking hippie drug dealer. He steals the few scenes he's in, recalling his Lebowski days.

Through it all, Zemeckis runs a tight ship. Flight signals a return for the director to familiar, thrilling territory. His first R-rated feature combines all those great Zemeckis touches, the humanity and large-scale action, with a sense of real independence where he can let his inner-Oliver Stone come out. Zemeckis has fun with all the nudity, drug use, and carousing (Rolling Stones and Red Hot Chili Peppers on the soundtrack). He also has Washington, who's as compelling here as he ever has been. Flight has it all.

Senior Editor at Zimbio. I'll take Johnny Clay, the Rev. Harry Powell, and Annie Savoy. You can have the rest.