A carefully executed, impressively unnerving set-piece occurs early in Robert Zemeckis’ Flight: when the jet under his command suddenly undergoes cataclysmic mechanical failure, seasoned commercial airline pilot Whip Whittaker (Denzel Washington) drains the fuel tanks, flips the plane upside-down and glides it into an emergency landing in a field behind a rural Georgia church. The sequence is rendered that much more suspenseful by our knowledge that Whip’s wasted: he woke that morning in an Orlando hotel with the help of some beer, a blunt, some coke and a couple of single-serve vodkas. While everyone else onboard panics, Whip keeps his cool and, as a result, saves a hundred lives; only six perish.
So an interesting question develops over the course of Flight’s first third: was Whip’s state of intoxication actually some sort of aid in his virtuoso, virtually miraculous feat of airmanship? In his resolutely cool, calm and contained performance, Washington—whose recent work has molded him into the top gun of all forms of American transportation (see Unstoppable and The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3)—would seem to support this thorny theory of grace under pressure. But we know where this is going. Soon as Whip gets home from the hospital he’s flushing all the dope down the toilet and dumping all the beer down the sink (it’s mostly Corona, but still). The union hires a whip-smart Johnny Cochrane (Don Cheadle) to ensure that Whip’s Toxicology report gets dismissed from the investigation. Meanwhile, Whip hooks up with Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a junkie who undergoes a nearly fatal overdose in perfect concert with Whip’s own nosedive. Nicole opts for cold turkey and AA meetings, but Whip’s resistant to join her. Stressed out by the investigation and the news groups constantly assembling outside of every building he enters, he swiftly jumps off the wagon.
The crash’s proximity to church, the omnipresent crucifixes, the lawyer’s motion to enter “Act of God” into the possible causes of the accident: Flight is taking the high, even holy, road to redemption. Screenwriter John Gatins (Real Steel) builds an intriguing and morally complex story about the weird confluence of instinct, control, circumstance and body chemistry. We know that Whip’s in trouble and needs help. We also know he’s a genuine hero and was clearly not responsible for the loss of life on Flight 227; on the contrary, it’s repeated several times that no one else could have saved the lives that he did. In the film’s final third, Whip is given two tests of will. He fails one utterly and—by the moral logic of Gatins’ script—he passes the other with flying colours. But consider this: when Whip’s willpower fails, he’s sober; when, during a hearing regarding the crash, Whip finally does the ostensibly right thing, he’s drunk! And I mean, super-stinko-drunk. And high on coke. And consider this: that “right thing” that Whip does helps no one, distracts the public and industry alike from the very serious mechanical failures responsible for the crash, and essentially ruins Whip’s life. It’s a peculiar confusion of purposes: Whip’s an Icarus figure, to be punished for (literally) flying too high, yet he’s granted what is, in politically correct, 12-step program terms, a Hollywood ending. However you try to make sense of it, it’ll make you seriously consider taking the train.