(Drama, R, 139 minutes)
Some films only serve to provide some sort of mindless entertainment and a temporary escape from reality for 120 minutes or so. Others turn reality on its head, leaving you speechless and struggling to collect your thoughts. This was my experience after seeing “Flight,” which opens today. Denzel Washington continues to top himself in this stirring performance as Whip Whitaker, a veteran pilot who can navigate the skies with ease but whose personal life is in a constant tailspin.
This is a role fit for Washington. I can’t think of anyone else who could have effectively garnered the mixture of feelings audiences will experience after watching him. Likewise, Robert Zemeckis took a break from animated films to take the helm of this one like only the Oscar-winning director could.
On a routine flight from Orlando, Fla., to Atlanta, things are business as usual, aside from a little turbulence. Whitaker does the usual: reaches the standard altitude, chats it up with the passengers, swigs a Screwdriver, and lets the copilot take over as he succumbs to his alcohol-induced slumber. Only this time, a mechanical failure results in chaos as the plane begins to break down 30,000-odd feet in the air.
Screenwriter John Gatins based “Flight” on actual transcripts but it’s almost impossible not to recall Capt. Chesley Burnett “Sully” Sullenberger, III and his “miracle” landing on the Hudson River in 2009. Everyone — crew and passengers — survived, and the captain was hailed a hero.
Everything wasn’t as miraculous in “Flight.” The crash sequence alone will leave you shaken. If you are prone to motion sickness, just cover your eyes because it is terrifying to watch.
Nevertheless, with the crew and passengers in a panic Whitaker manages to land the plane in a way that you will have to see to believe. Cellphone footage captures the landing. A blood test captures drugs and alcohol in Whitaker’s system.
The second miracle of this fiasco is Whitaker has people in his corner including longtime friend and NTSB agent Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood), attorney Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle), and Nicole (Kelly Reilly) a heroin addict taking another stab at recovery. However, conflicts exist in all of these relationships. There is a fine line between helping and enabling, and these people tiptoe, dance and stomp on it when it comes to Whitaker.
Just as these characters struggle with him, you will find yourself in a personal battle as well. Remnants of his past, especially failed relationships with loved ones, will conjure feelings of sympathy. His continued reckless behavior will leave you apathetic toward him and the consequences of his self-destruction. He will become severely unlikable and incapable of being trusted. Then he will make you believe in him. Then you won’t know what to think.
As the credits roll, you will question whether “Flight” is a movie about a victim or a villain. What is undeniable is that Washington puts on a hell of a performance, one that should not go without notice.