At the risk of appearing to review the wrong movie, let me open with a little story about Abraham Lincoln. The way I heard it, Old Abe was fixin' to promote General Grant for taking Vicksburg when people warned him that Grant was a heavy drinker. Let me know what he drinks, Abe said, and I'll prescribe it for my other generals.
Robert Zemeckis would have court-martialed Grant.
To be fair, Zemeckis's first film in a dozen years not to turn its actors into cartoons has a different way of looking at a similar situation. Flight presents us with the seeming paradox of a man, an airline pilot, who for at least one day achieves just the right balance of booze and drugs in his system that enables him to react with perfect calm and expert poise in a mortal crisis. Running on cocaine and screwdrivers, Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) executes an ingenious midair maneuver that allows him to glide his stricken, nosediving jetliner to a crash landing and save 96 of 102 people on board. We are told repeatedly, and reports of simulator tests after the fact appear to confirm this, that no other pilot could have managed Whip's heroic feat. It's easy to argue, of course, that he pulled it off in spite of his intoxication, but a modern movie wouldn't dare claim that his drinking and drugging actually enhanced his abilities at the crucial moment. Yet the fact of his deed remains in front of us, forcing us to ask why the film insists on prodding Whip toward some seemingly necessary self-abnegation. What is he guilty of apart from ruining his marriage sometime earlier because, as he insists defensively during the picture, "I choose to drink!"
Zemeckis and writer John Gatins would argue that we shouldn't give Whip too much credit for his heroism. Their view of the episode is implicit from their film's unusually religious undercurrent. It turns up in comic moments, including the three-way chat in a hospital stairwell involving Whip, the recovering addict Nicole (Kelly Reilly) who'll become his love interest, and a comedy-relief cancer patient who discourses on whether God willed his illness on him. It re-emerges in a more satiric context when Whip's pilots'-union lawyer (Don Cheadle) succeeds in getting the NTSB to attribute the plane's failure and crash partly to an "act of God." It's asserted most unsettlingly by Whip's co-pilot, recovering from a coma and resentful of his disablement, who nonetheless insists that, while the plane was doomed the moment Whip took the controls, it was also God's will that Whip had the controls in order to save the day. Of course, I should include every reference by ordinary people or the news media to the "miracle" that took place in that field by the church, since my guess is that, as far as Gatins and Zemeckis are concerned, that's exactly what happened. I don't mean to say that the film suggests any recognizable divine intervention; the crash sequence, one of the director's great set-pieces, is all too intensely and suspensefully plausible to permit such an interpretation. But Flight's message seems to be that Whip shouldn't take credit for and shouldn't be credited with the "miracle" as a personal achievement if doing so perpetuates some sense of invincibility that would keep him using. To use questionable political metaphors, Whip "didn't build" that. At the very least he had his co-pilot and a veteran flight attendant helping with the controls. Just possibly, God helped too.
Once we get past the spectacular opening, Flight is just another alky movie, albeit distinguished by a powerful star turn from Washington and complicated by the legal maneuvering among the NTSB, the pilots' union and the airline. The union is determined to protect its own, and Cheadle strives to suppress any evidence damning to an ungrateful Whip, while union and airline alike seem to blame the manufacturer. What we've already seen suggests that they're right, but as reporters wonder why Whip's lying so low for a hero it seems like the stage is set for a show trial of the pilot for the sin of drinking. This is fair to the extent that it's illegal endangerment for a pilot to drink on the plane, but the real trial is the ordeal required to break down Whip's barriers to acknowledging a problem. He seems on the verge of doing it all himself after his lucky escape -- we see him flushing a houseful of booze down the drain early on -- but the movie predictably insists that he can't do it simply as a matter of will, just as he mustn't credit his landing to will alone, without a confession of error. To get him to that point, Flight becomes much like some of the Warren William films I've reviewed in the Pre-Code Parade -- the ones (The Mind Reader, Bedside) that seemed to sabotage William's stardom by making him play wretched frauds who can only redeem themselves by admitting the frauds and taking their punishments. I was reminded of those movies by Flight's climax, a clever bit of manipulation that feigns anticlimax before hitting Whip with an unexpected moral dilemma that finally breaks him, or redeems him.
Stardom gives some actors a certain authority -- the actors might prefer to say that a certain authority gives them stardom -- and Denzel Washington has all the authority necessary to play a heroic drunk and make a kind of near-tragedy of Whip's defiance the rest of the way. It's probably the best male acting I've seen yet this year outside The Master. As his dealer, John Goodman seems to charge in from another movie every so often -- and from the way he dresses some have guessed it's The Big Lebowski -- but high-functioning pop cinema like Flight allows for big broad outbursts like his. The fact that he never changes from a comic to an evil character, and is actually needed to get Whip in shape for a crucial hearing makes the film a little more than one-note AA propaganda. Cheadle is effective as the lawyer and Bruce Greenwood is equally so in an equally low-key turn (compared to Goodman) as the union rep. As Nicole, Kelly Reilly is set up as a virtual co-star when her first scenes as a junky crashing a porn shoot looking for a fix and OD'ing in her apartment are intercut with Whip's big adventure. The character is perhaps too mechanically set up as a love interest for the rebounding Whip, but Reilly is charismatic and her character is missed when she flees the picture. In his return to live-action, Zemeckis reaffirms his standing as a pop master. He can create moments of incredible pictorial or emotional intensity that redeem the earnest banality that usually comes with them in his movies. Much of Flight may seem very familiar (if not banal) once you get past the initial hype and the opening spectacle, but Zemeckis's skill and Washington's power give the familiar a shot of something extra that other more ordinary pictures could use.