Tuesday, November 6, 2012
You can tell we’re getting to the business end of the movie year. Only one of the last 13 films I’ve reviewed has rated below two stars (the surprise hit “Pitch Perfect”), and very strong films such as Robert Zemeckis’ “Flight” are starting to arrive more steadily. “Flight” is not, as its official site would suggest, a mystery thriller about a partially averted airplane crash. It’s the story of an alcoholic, enacted with restraint and vulnerability by Denzel Washington in an unusually meritorious performance showing both the mental strength and weakness of his character, the veteran commercial pilot Whip Whitaker.
We meet Whip, divorced but still seemingly in love with his wife, in a hotel room the morning of the fateful flight, where he wakes up, hung over and still drinking heavily, to the sight of the ass crack of Trina Marquez, the sexy flight attendant he bedded the night before. Whip’s consumption of alcohol and other controlled substances is on an epic scale, and almost without pause.
The idea of his being responsible for the 102 souls on this rain-soaked short hop from Orlando to Atlanta is terrifying, but when several key pieces of avionics fail mid-flight, Whip’s exceptional proficiency and singleness of purpose allow him to fly the plane just above ground, inverted, and bring it down in an open field, limiting the death toll to six. (In subsequent simulations, ten of the country’s best test pilots kill everyone onboard.) The flight sequence lasts less than half an hour, but it’s as well-executed and impossible to turn away from as any disaster set piece since the tsunami in Clint Eastwood’s “Hereafter.”
Initially, the media hail Whip as a Sully-esque hero. But after a few days in the hospital, his labor rep (Bruce Greenwood) introduces him to Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle), the union’s criminal attorney. Turns out Whip’s toxicology report came back with a BAL several times the legal limit, and unless Lang can make it disappear, Whip could be looking at life in prison. Greenwood and Cheadle turn in quietly solid performances, as does Melissa Leo as the head of the federal crash investigation, who chairs an NTSB hearing that makes for riveting and entirely credible cinema. John Goodman turns up – for the third time in recent months – to provide comic relief as Whip’s supplier, Harling Mays, who knows just how to drug Whip up – and down – to make it through the hearing without incriminating himself. Goodman has become an important and consistently reliable comic presence in current film, making any movie better by his presence.
But “Flight” belongs to Washington, a sometimes overrated actor who shows here, I think, as much craft as he’s been called upon to demonstrate in decades. It’s tough to bring anything new to the depiction of alcoholism in film, but watch how Washington conveys Whip’s internal struggle simply by listening to the speakers at an AA meeting and quietly slipping out a side door, or his hesitant, dreadful gait as he opens first one door, then another in a hotel-room scene that’s one of at least three show-stoppers in “Flight.” Here, not in the wretched “Training Day,” is a piece of work that could rightly be considered for an Academy Award.