Don't Drink and Drive
Flight is mostly not what viewers expect or what promo posters imply. Opening minutes aside, it is not your usual carrier-in-distress thriller, and Denzel Washington’s Captain William “Whip” Whitaker is not the publicity photo’s steely American hero, for substances other than ice water run in his veins.
At a press screening/Q&A hours before its New York Film Festival Closing Night world première, director, co-producer and licensed pilot Robert Zemeckis ventured that this would not figure among airlines’ in-flight offerings. Nor, although involving much research, does it derive from the Captain “Sully” Sullenberger “Miracle on the Hudson,” for John Gatins affirmed that his screenplay idea originated nearly a decade before that January 2009 “heroic and unique action,” in his personal battle with the bottle and fear of flying.
Indeed, though the classic exciting force involves the “broken plane” on a SouthJet shuttle run, the conflict is really set up years before and pictured in the present in an opening sequence. A 7:14 am call is not a wake-up, for the pilot and airhostess Katerina Marquez (Nadine Velazquez) have romped between the sheets and drunk all night. As she dresses, he snorts a final line before heading for Orlando airport too.
It is a senior officer’s decision whether a plane takes off or lands. Angered by ex-wife Deana’s (Garcelle Beauvais) call from Atlanta for more money for their teenage son, Whip initiates flight 227 despite zero visibility in driving rain. Conservative Christian first officer Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty) smells alcohol on his commander but follows instructions as they immediately fly into extreme turbulence, after which the captain orders that refreshment service be curtailed and personally reassures the terrified passengers while clandestinely downing two vodkas himself.
A tail-assembly bolt fails, however, paralyzing the horizontal stabilizer and causing a power shutdown. The cool captain flips the plane, which, upside-down, can be glided so near the ground that it shears a church steeple before crash-landing.
Only six of a “hundred-and-two souls” aboard are killed, including Katerina, but, Evans permanently crippled, both cockpit occupants survive.
Sneaking to a stairwell for a smoke, hospitalized Whip meets porno industry- and drug OD-survivor Nicole Maggen (Kelly Reilly), with whom a chance encounter will later unite him as they struggle with the demons of dependency.
A hero and convinced that no one but he could have saved the passengers, Whip learns that transportation safety regulations require an inquiry. Friend and comic enabler Harling Mays (John Goodman) supplies his personal and addiction needs, and pilots’ union friend Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood) supplies no-nonsense Chicago lawyer Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle), who does not care for this new client but will do anything to avoid a conviction for criminal dereliction. (At the press session, the jokey actor denied any racial dynamic.)
Fleeing the press and growing questions, the hero-maybe-villain retreats to a farm inherited from his crop-duster-pilot father. Now in the company of Nicole, who is setting her life in order better than he, Whip drinks more heavily, trying the patience of those who want to back him up and further alienating his ex-family.
Under-the-influence air and ground crews and untold near misses are open secrets in real life. Flight is less about that, which really is its drawing card, than about the destructive self-denial of substance abusers. That, seven miles up, lives depend on pilots’ sobriety and skill is not the film’s point of concentration, which appears more in line with that of such better considerations as The Lost Weekend, The Country Girl, Come Back, Little Sheba, Days of Wine and Roses, Long Day’s Journey into Night and Leaving Las Vegas.
Ellen Brock’s (Melissa Leo) considerate line of questioning during the climactic inquest provides a way out. The pilot can save his skin in confirming a falsehood miraculously offered up that traduces the woman he had told he would marry, or save his soul by suddenly fessing up to his lifelong sustaining lie. For all the in-flight fright, the end is a comedown to Hollywood earth.
(Released by Paramount Pictures and rated “R” by MPAA.)