For the opening scene of Flight to have maximum impact, it’s probably best to go in knowing nothing about its protagonist’s profession, which is unfortunately revealed in the film poster, if not the title itself. Waking in an anonymous hotel room, Denzel Washington stares at the naked woman he bedded the night before, while his ex-wife calls him to argue about money. Bleary-eyed and surrounded by the remnants of a party only hours dead, he swigs the dregs from a beer bottle, stumbles around the room, does a line of coke to get straight. And then he eventually strides confidently into the hallway in his airline pilot’s uniform, to the tune of Joe Cocker’s “Feelin’ Alright.” Directing his first live-action film since 2000’s Cast Away, Robert Zemeckis paces it brilliantly, slowly ramping up the energy from hungover lethargy to coke-fueled confidence, while creating undercurrents of dread as Washington hits his stride. He looks the part of the perfect pilot, and he may feel all right, but beneath the surface, something has clearly gone wrong.
Whatever his problems—and by the film’s end, they’ve been depicted in exhaustive detail—his confidence isn’t misplaced. There’s only one flight in Flight, what should be a routine morning transit from Orlando to Atlanta. It’s destined to be more harrowing than usual, however. As a new co-pilot (Brian Geraghty) looks on in concern after their plane takes off in the rain, Washington punches through a narrow corridor of clouds while traveling at a speed just on the right side of what’s considered safe. It’s how he flies and how he lives: pushing the limit but never going over, thanks to his perfect control. Then, as the plane nears its destination, events beyond Washington’s control take over.
What follows is a sequence of physically upsetting intensity as Washington takes the plane to the far reaches of what’s physically possible in an attempt to save it. It’s an unforgettable sequence that ultimately functions as a prelude for the rest of the story. Back on the ground, battered but essentially unharmed, Washington is forced to look his demons in the eye, even if those demons had nothing to do with bringing down the plane. While a sympathetic union rep (Bruce Greenwood) and a less-than-sympathetic lawyer (Don Cheadle) walk him through the legal aftermath of the accident, Washington develops a friendship with a fellow patient (Kelly Reilly) met during his hospital stay.
A woman whose heroin addiction has muted her innate vivaciousness, Reilly embraces her second chance as her relationship with Washington deepens. Washington, on the other hand, isn’t sure whether to treat his survival as a second chance, or just another in a string of lucky breaks. In his struggle to figure out what to do next, Flight often finds a dramatic urgency that matches its film-opening disaster. Washington surrenders to the bottle, then returns to it with the frustrating believability of a man following the logic of addiction.
Until a rote, brief coda, Flight largely lets the behavior speak for itself. John Gatins’ script offers only secondhand glimpses of Washington’s life before the crash, but they’re suggestive: a family history connected to the Tuskegee Airmen, a shattered marriage and an alienated son whom he loves but can’t talk to, a military past spoken of admiringly, and a history of drinking spoken of in hushed terms. In one of his best performances, Washington builds the character through his actions, and sometimes just his expressions: a confident gaze here, a melting of that confidence elsewhere, and an ever-persistent hunger resting just below the surface. He plays the sort of morally conflicted protagonist sadly seen more often on cable dramas than in mainstream films.
He’s got good people around him, too, particularly Reilly—previously most visible as Watson’s wife in the Sherlock Holmes films, but sure to be working more after this movie—and John Goodman, who plays Washington’s longtime buddy and supplier. Goodman’s introduction to the sound of “Sympathy For The Devil” suggests Zemeckis hasn’t lost his taste for on-the-nose music cues since Forrest Gump, but it does drive home that there’s nothing less at stake in the film than the fate of its protagonist’s soul. The film takes that matter seriously, staying close to Washington as he tries, and often fails, to do what he knows to be right after a lifetime of doing wrong. The film makes it clear that every choice matters. On Earth as in the air, one wrong move, and everything can slip away.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, plot details not talked about in this review, visit Flight’s Spoiler Space.