As one of the islands of excess in a culture of repression, Hollywood has long had a problem with Demon Rum, not to mention incubus cocaine.
Those failings are shared by Whip Whitaker, the hot-shot airline pilot brought to jarring, chaotic full-blooded life by Denzel Washington in an Oscar-caliber performance in the up-and-down “Flight.”
When we meet him, Whip is struggling awake in an airport hotel. Or rather, this being a Hollywood production, the star is lying in bed, strategically draped in covers, while an astonishingly attractive young actress wanders the room, completely nude.
She is Nadine Velazquez, Catalina from “My Name is Earl,” and while her character will be important to the plot, getting dressed while the bleary-eyed Washington focuses on ogling her is about as much sustained screen time as the actress gets.
Stimulated, Whip grabs a beer, snorts a line and is ready to face the day. We encounter the couple an hour or so later, when Velazquez as flight attendant Katerina Marquez is greeting passengers when Whitaker saunters out of the rain. He will be flying this bird from Orlando to Atlanta, once he gets coffee and two aspirin.
Meanwhile, screenwriter John Gatins has taken the audience on a detour with Nicole Maggen, someone else who is having a bad day. A pretty but worn-looking actress, Nicole has turned up for what she thinks is a serious role, but discovers it’s a porn production.
Well played by Kelly Reilly, Mary Watson in the current Sherlock Holmes movies, Nicole stalks off in a huff. Then she stops, because she is a junkie and has really shown up to score a fix. Bad move, since even her supplier warns her that this stuff is so strong that it’s called The Taliban.
Just when viewers may be wondering, “WTF?” director Robert Zemeckis gets things back on track. Whip’s 52-minute commuter hop turns out to be filled with incident, and not because of the pilot’s party-down lifestyle. A bit of turbulence or two turns into a real thrill ride, as Whip Whitaker must snap his plane out of serious trouble.
These action sequences mark a stunning return to form for Zemeckis, a once wildly popular director who has done nothing of note since “Cast Away” in 2000. As there, he is not doing the airline industry may favors in “Flight,” but the plane plunge in this new movie is even scarier and more adroit than in the Tom Hanks crash vehicle.
The emotional stakes are higher as well, since a planeload of passengers and crew are struggling through Zemeckis’ harrowingly realistic depiction of a disaster unfolding in real time.
The trailer for this movie would lead you to expect that these very strong scenes are the guts of the movie. But “Flight” has other things on its mind, for good and ill. It is not much of a spoiler to say that Denzel Washington survives. More surprising is that afterward, he is called upon to do even more to carry the movie.
As with almost anyone else who has too much to drink in an American movie, Whip Whitaker has not just gotten caught up in partying and misjudged. He is unhappy, but not clinically depressed, about his wife divorcing him.
He is a bit sentimental, but not overwrought, about the death of his father, whose farm provides a suitably scenic if rustic hideaway when the media starts chasing the new celebrity pilot.
No, "Whip Whitaker Has A Problem." And in Hollywood, there are 12 steps to "Personal Redemption." And nothing counts more— certainly not other people’s jobs or businesses—than "Personal Redemption."
What makes this palatable is Denzell’s down-and-dirty performance. As much as possible, Washington tamps down his natural charisma. His Whip Whitaker is a man who can turn on the charm, and displays some decent impulses. But as much as Nicole Maggen, he is in the grip of his addictions, most of which come in glowing bottles.
One of Zemekis’ achievements here is a sort of reverse product placement, making bottles of vodka and scotch and beer seem prosaic or alluring or threatening. In a great shot, a lone bottle stands ominously on a table top, until a hand swoops out of semi-darkness to grab it.
While this captures the foreground, the investigation of what caused the in-flight problems percolates in the background.
That allows some strong work by an almost uniformly excellent supporting cast. Particularly good is Bruce Greenwood as on old friend and colleague of Whip now an official with the pilots’ union. As a confident, no-nonsense lawyer, Don Cheadle as usual threatens to steal every scene he is in.
Of course, no one is going to steal a movie from Denzel Washington, and the script does give him some lifelines by avoiding some trite turns. “Flight” is one of the few movies where a number of characters are overtly Christians, but their religion is just part of life. Some are heartfelt, some are batty, the movie does not have an agenda on that score.
To his credit, Gatins at least postpones some other easy outs, as does Washington. For as much realism as they manage along the way, though, they cannot escape the Hollywood addiction to delivering an Important Message.
“Flight” flirts with being a movie about a flawed human being who is supremely good at one thing, but at best muddles through the rest of his life. But where is the spectacle? How would that inspire an audience? This is movieland America.
It is important to remember that the 12-step approach so beloved by Hollywood began with a good admixture of theology to pop psychology, and was aimed at hardcore alcoholics, such as chronically depressed "Bill W.", William Wilson. Artistic types, or wannabes, are not immune to such problems or such solutions. But simply getting too much to handle at once is different than physical addiction. Redemption does not always require a capital "R."
Denzel Washington deserves enormous credit for taking a more dangerous course than usual in “Flight.” But this is no documentary. He knows there is a movie-star safe landing at the end.