Contrary to expectations, Flight is less a film about a plane crash, but more about a man forced to confront his alcohol and drug addiction.
In Cast Away, director Robert Zemeckis tore a plane apart in visceral style to maroon a man on a deserted island with nothing but himself for company. In Flight, captain Whip Whitaker (Denzil Washington) survives the directors’ force majeure to land a crippled airliner after some pretty fancy flying. The trouble is, he tests positive in hospital for booze and cocaine, and so is forced to retreat from life as he comes under investigation by the aviation authority. He survived the crash, but can he survive himself?
Washington is superb as a man living life on the edge of functionality – swinging from a drunken stupor, barely able to talk, to an enhanced state of mind where he is supremely confidant and razor sharp. His abilities as a pilot are without question; after a malfunction, he enlists other members of the flight crew to help him perform a daring series of unconventional manoeuvres that ultimately save many lives.
Enabled by his drug-dealing buddy Harling Mays (John Goodman), Whip’s personality oscillates between sobriety and stoned as he feels the turbulence of the law – and possible exposure – on his tail. After the plane crash, it’s a plot intended as a second hair-raising ride as the audience watch him grapple, slip and regain control of his life, only to lapse again.
Hanging in the air throughout is the question of whether being stoned assisted him in recovering the aircraft as he did. What some believe to be an act of God may have been an act assisted by intoxication, saving lives for which he may, paradoxically, be punished. It’s a straight story about the choice of redeeming oneself with great cost, or continuing to maintain a deception at all.
The religious aspect of the film is not as prevalent as some have suggested, but it’s a plot device that was lost on me. The concept of divine intervention is not intrinsic to the final equation, yet Zemeckis continues to sprinkle it here and there. Yes, there is a growing moral conflict within Whip as to whether he should confess to being inebriated at the time of the flight or ride along with the union officials trying to cover up the fact – but, perhaps in an indication of the grip of his addiction – his course is affected not by the religious views and efforts of those around him, but by the previously unknown example of someone else much closer to his heart.
As an aside, there is a question about the opening scene, set in a hotel bedroom after Whip and crew member Katerina Marquez (Nadine Velazquez) have secretly spent the night together. While Whip answers the phone, Velazquez is seen completely nude, close to camera for much of the scene as she gets dressed. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m red-blooded and she’s a very attractive lady with a great body, but there doesn’t seem to be any narrative reason for it. Compare this to Helen Hunt’s full-frontal in The Sessions, which had context in a story about the normalising of sex for a man who was terrified of it. Yes, the nudity in Flight is realistic of a woman who has had a night of great sex, but Denzel’s chap isn’t given a similar outing and there’s an imbalance in the lingering shots of her, admittedly well-toned body, that seem gratuitous. It would be interesting to know Valezquez’s opinion.
Let’s be clear: I’m not offended. It just seems a little cheap and I just can’t see what it adds to the movie. It would be a shame if a film maker of Zemeckis’ stature felt obliged to include an 80s-action-film titty-and-crotch shot purely for pornographic gratification, because for that, we can go and watch porn. Just tell us the story, Bob.