By Patricia Ducey. The three most important things in moviemaking are: story, story, story. That twist on the old real estate maxim (“location, location, location”) illustrates why Robert Zemeckis’s Flight stalls out and thuds to earth after an admittedly spectacular opening crash sequence and Denzel Washington’s superior performance.
First, Denzel: I confess that his early work, especially Malcolm X and The Hurricane, impress me more than his turn toward the anti-hero, as in his Oscar-winning role in Training Day as a despicable, corrupt detective – and he chooses another flawed character here in Whip Whitaker, the ace pilot with a tragic flaw: hopeless addiction.
Captain Whitaker awakens one morning in an anonymous hotel room, still drunk from the night before – his doughy, tattooed body looking a lot worse for the wear. He and his bedmate Trina have been up partying all night, and on her way out the door she urges Whip to hurry; they have a flight in a couple of hours. So Whip, with a last beer and a line of coke to chase away the beery fog, strides confidently through the airport to actually pilot 102 souls from Orlando to Atlanta on his Southjet flight.
His young copilot Ken (Brian Geraghty) is simultaneously in awe of the man and suspicious of his condition; Whip inhales a hit of oxygen and offers his young partner one too, which he declines. They take off into the rain, which soon grows into a thunderstorm and stomach-wrenching turbulence. But master pilot Whip pushes the plane to its limits and expertly guides them into the clear. Everyone on board breathes a sigh of relief. As they descend for landing, however, the hydraulics fail and the plane veers out of control and into a nosedive – and the passengers are thrown around the cabin like rag dolls. Whip takes control. He orders Ken and flight attendant Margaret (Tamara Tunie) to help him in a series of unorthodox maneuvers in a last, desperate attempt to land the crippled liner. Miraculously, he does just that. And despite his blood alcohol level, he has pulled off a landing that Sully Sullenberger would envy.
At this point, Flight is firmly planted in the social drama genre. Whip’s life revolves around his addition to booze and drugs, enabled by his denial and consummate skill in the air. He has already lost his wife and son due to his drinking problem, and his first thought post-crash is to summon his drug dealer (John Goodman) to his hospital bed with refreshments. The media dub him a hero, but he holes up in his ramshackle farm outside of town to avoid them – and the truth. We wonder if he will ever sober up, or if he will continue to escape responsibility for the crash. However, that is not enough to sustain two hours of story. He is already divorced and at rock bottom at the time of the initial crash, so there is no suspense in watching him play that single note.