For decades, Robert Zemeckis has been recognised by film fanatics both young and old for his mixed bag of memorable films. Many like myself know him for his wacky yet timeless family comedies, like the Back to the Future trilogy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and The Polar Express. Older ‘Zemeckians’ may know him for his awe-inspiring and highly acclaimed dramas, such as Forrest Gump or Cast Away. But while these dramas would explore the boundaries of deep philosophical themes, Zemeckis takes this to a new level with Flight.
Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is a divorced pilot with an addiction to both alcohol and cocaine. To Whip, he is living the high life (to some extent quite literally), believing he can get away with piloting a plane drunk and out of his mind on cocaine. But when his plane malfunctions in mid-air and causes Whip to make a remarkable crash landing, he is brought down to Earth and immediately hailed as a hero for saving almost 100 passengers. However, when his alcohol and drug-sodden lifestyle comes to light through the committee investigating the crash, Whip immediately comes under federal investigation and finds his so called perfect world crashing around him.
In viewing Flight, Whip reminded me very much of George Clooney’s character, Ryan Bingham, in Up In The Air. In an ironic similarity to each other, the titles of both films use the theme of air travel as a metaphor for characters that choose to live life in the clouds before they are brought back to reality and forced into a self-realisation of the lives they left behind. But while Bingham is revealed to have left his loving family and friends back home, Whip is forced to face the lives that his alcoholism has come close to destroying, including his own.
When looking at Washington’s repertoire of acclaimed and similarly dark roles, such as in Training Day and American Gangster, it’s no surprise that Zemeckis chose to cast Washington for the lead over his usual partner in crime, Tom Hanks. Throughout the narrative, the audience’s opinion of Whip quickly changes as his alcoholism and drug addiction escalates. In a short period of time, Washington is able to make his character change from being the hero of Flight to the anti-hero: one minute, we are encouraged to feel sympathy for and are inspired by Whip since he was the only one who could have landed the plane safely, despite being unfit to fly; the next, this is ripped away when he takes a bad turn. He deserves all that is coming to him.
While Washington steals most of the thunder in Flight, the rest of the cast provide excellent supporting roles, from Kelly Reilly as the recovering heroine addict trying to convince Whip to go into rehab, to Bruce Greenwood as his old navy buddy trying to support him in his time of trouble despite his bitterness. My personal favourite, however, was John Goodman as Whip’s drug supplier Harling Mays, who enters as if he has just switched roles with Jeff Bridges from The Big Lebowski. Other micro elements of Flight make it a very compelling drama, such as its soundtrack which holds immediate connotations with an alcohol or drug-induced episode. Although, it does occasionally feel like Zemeckis has ripped pages straight from a Scorsese music book.
Although Flight may not be the most gripping or award-worthy drama, the Best Actor nomination for Washington and the nomination for Best Writing are well deserved. The character of Whip Whittaker and his story as a self-destructive addict makes Flight a high-flyer.