Whip Whitaker, the character at the center of Flight, is every traveler’s worst nightmare. Drunk and high on cocaine after spending the night with a coworker, he takes his place behind the controls of an airplane filled with passengers. He’s also the heroic pilot who, when the jet malfunctions, makes some extreme life-saving maneuvers that minimize the effects of the crash that follows.
Flight is a film about addiction. The story exposes the lengths to which we will go to satisfy an addiction and also how hard we will work to hide it from others and from ourselves. Denzel Washington’s nuanced acting elevates his role as a character who is both hateful and sympathetic at the same time. His continuing fight to deny what he is doing alienates him from more and more people in his life. The movie shows that what he thinks he’s been hiding all this time has actually been pretty obvious to the people close to him; he has fooled himself into thinking no one knows and that he has it all under control.
Control is another big theme in Flight. Whitaker is under the influence of a controlled substance at the controls of a plane controlling the fate of the “102 souls” on board. He thinks he has control over his substance abuse, his career, and his reputation. The person who seems to have the most control over him is his goofy, vulgar friend and dealer, Harling (played by John Goodman, who is popping up everywhere lately). Harling appears on the scene whenever Whitaker gets down, keeping him hopped up just enough to feel good again.
Along with the question of control, the movie includes a lot of God-talk that doesn’t seem to go anywhere. Early on, after the plane crash, Whip is smoking in the stairwell of the hospital with two other patients. One is dying from cancer; he embarks on a rather heavy-handed soliloquy saying that we can’t control God; he’ll give us what he wants to give us, including cancer. Later, another couple is willing to hide what Whip was doing because they feel that God ordained the crash to happen. And while the investigators add “act of God” to the causes of the crash, Whitaker wonders “Whose God would do this?”
But don’t look for God in the first 20 minutes of the film, which exposes viewers to clear visual and verbal images of all of the twisted roads addicts may follow in their pursuit of oblivion. It’s not pretty, and offensive language abounds.
One of the most effective sequences of Flight is the plane crash itself. It delivers real fear and drama, keeping viewers on the edge of their seats. It is, of course, one big metaphor for the course of Whitaker’s life—flying high, fleeing reality, and the inevitable crash. The question is whether or not Whip Whitaker (and by proxy, any of us) will recognize and take responsibility for the damage he’s left in his wake.
The main reason to see this movie is Denzel Washington’s performance as a man forced to reckon with his demons; the movie itself is a mixed bag of great filmmaking and spotty storytelling. (Paramount)