Sunday 18 November 2012

Movie Review: Flight (2012)

A modern day tragic hero fable, Flight asks smart questions about heroism and personality flaws. Denzel Washington is admirable as the alcoholic pilot who miraculously lands a stricken plane, but Flight loses some thrust in a second half that circles the runaway a few too many times before landing.

William "Whip" Whitaker (Washington) is routinely consuming alcohol, and has never admitted to himself that he has a problem. Using cocaine to mask his drinking and carrying on a relationship with flight attendant Katerina (Nadine Velazquez), Whip is divorced from a wife who had enough of his lies, and he has no meaningful contact with his teen-aged son. Despite being legally drunk, Whip takes control of a flight from Orlando to Atlanta and expertly navigates through severe turbulence. With the worst seemingly behind him, Whip consumes more alcohol during the flight. He is then startled when due to a catastrophic mechanical failure, he loses control of the plane at the start of the descent into Atlanta.

Clear headed and calm, Whip miraculously glides the plane upside down and crash-lands into an open field. Only six out of 102 passengers and crew die, with Katerina one of the fatalities after she helped to save the life of a child. Proclaimed in the press as a hero but with investigators crawling all over the causes of the crash, Whip knows that it's only a matter of time before his drinking is exposed, and he goes into hiding on his late father's farm. With lawyer Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle) assigned by the pilot's union to help him, Whip starts a relationship with recovering drug addict Nicole (Kelly Reilly), but even she finds it difficult to tolerate his out-of-control alcohol consumption.

Can a man simultaneously be a hero and a villain, and what fate does an alcoholic saviour deserve? The John Gatins screenplay briskly jumps to the point, Whip's harrowing disregard for his health competing with the terrifying plane crash in an exhilarating race to frame the moral dilemma. Director Robert Zemeckis delivers the crash sequence with plenty of adrenaline spilling from the overhead bins, as Flight quickly ascends at a steep angle, the opening 45 minutes rushing by in the jet-stream of Whip's ambivalence and the spectacular crash landing of a non-functioning aircraft.

In the remaining 75 minutes, the movie struggles at times to maintain cruising altitude. Whip's battle with the bottle, whereby he tries to stop drinking through sheer will power only to easily slip back to excessive consumption, stretches for too many scenes.

The relationship with Nicole is full of promise, with the two struggling addicts understandably drawn to each other, and the more determined Nicole fighting a seemingly losing battle in trying to pull Whip out of his alcoholic stupor. Frustratingly the potential for an earthy romance fades in and out of story without being fully explored.

Denzel Washington's performance is never less than first class, and he brings to painful life the internal struggle against denial faced by alcoholics, who first and foremost learn how best to lie to themselves.Washington allows Whip to be arrogant and self-assured in public, brooding and wracked by guilt in private, but never able to resist the next bottle of beer, no matter what is at stake.

Nicole is also an addict but a bit further along in her journey, willing to admit her dependency and seek help for it. Kelly Reilly brings to Nicole the vulnerability of the fragile healing process in a performance of building strength. Cheadle, John Goodman as Whip's colourful friend and drug supplier, Bruce Greenwood as a pilot union's representative and Melissa Leo as the lead crash investigator ensure a high level of quality in all the supporting roles.

Flight does have its moments of turbulence, but the star pilot delivers a stellar performance and the trip serves a meal full of hearty moral questions.

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