Flight (2012), which stars Denzel Washington as an airline pilot who’s an alcoholic and a cocaine addict, is meant to be a story of redemption. That, and the fact that Washington delivers a stellar performance (Roger Ebert called it “one of his very best.”), garnered the movie rave reviews and a couple of Oscar nominations.
What the reviews seem to have missed was how contrived the movie was. It was the first movie Robert Zemeckis, still perhaps best known for the Back to the Future series, had directed in some 12 years. Perhaps that, and the fact that neither he nor his screenwriter John Gatins had any experience with serious drama, accounts for this.
The story itself is preposterous from the start. “Whip” Whitaker, the pilot, awakens in Orlando after a night of booze and sex with one of his airline’s flight attendants, Trina Marquez (Nadine Velazquez, who gratuitously gets to show off her naked body). He’s late to get to the airport for a flight to Atlanta, so he snorts some coke to re-energize himself for the task at hand.
It’s a rough take-off because of severe weather, but Whip brings it off. There’s worse to come, however, for on the approach to Atlanta the plane goes out of control (It turns out at the end to have been mechanical failure, due to the airline’s failure to replace a worn jackscrew that is essential to pitch control.). In an undeniably powerful sequence, Whip , completely calm and showing no effects of booze or coke, manages to get control of the plane by flying it upside down for a while, then makes a rough landing in a field. Of 102 “souls” on board, only four passengers and two crew –one of them Trina – are killed.
Gatins told the Los Angeles Times that his script was “loosely inspired” by an actual Alaska Airlines crash in 2000. There too there was a broken jackscew, and there too the pilots flipped the plane over in hopes of making a safe landing. Only they didn’t; there were no survivors. And those pilots were presumably clean and sober, whereas Whip was not only full of coke and alcohol when he boarded the plane, but downed a couple of bottles of vodka while in flight. Can we believe that for a moment? Yet we are later told that the National Transportation Safety Board did simulations with other pilots – and none of them managed to save the plane.
Whip is hailed as a hero, but the NTSB has to hold a hearing to determine the cause of the crash, and a blood sample taken from him at the hospital shows he was off the charts. Enter his union rep Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood) and lawyer Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle). No problem, they say; Lang can have the toxicology report thrown out on technical grounds. All Whip has to do is stay off booze – and be ready to give false testimony at the hearing. And at first he seems to be complying. Retiring to a farm left him by his grandfather, in order to steer clear of the press, he throws out all the beer and liquor there. And yet the man who gives him a lift there is his drug dealer Harling Mays (John Goodman) – as sleazy a character as they come.
Whip’s demons return. He hooks up with a woman he met in the hospital, Nicole Maggen (Kelly Reilly) – herself an addict and alcoholic, who’s way behind in her rent and without any job offers except for a porn film. Whip tries to connect with his ex-wife and son, but they’ll have nothing to do with him, knowing his ways. He soon falls off the wagon, but when Nicole manages to get back on it and join Alcoholics Anonymous, even inviting him to attend a session, he won’t come clean about being an alcoholic, and sneaks off to continue boozing.
By this time, he’s driving Charlie and Hugh to distraction, and you have to wonder why they put up with them. They look increasingly sleazy themselves as they try to save his ass in a meeting with airline executives. It’s one thing for Lang to have taken care of the toxicology report; we read about lawyers doing that sort of thing all the time. But now he and Charlie are becoming increasingly complicit in suborning perjury, and incidentally giving lawyers and union reps a bad name. To keep him sober, Charlie puts him up at his own apartment a week before the hearing, and for the night before, for no obvious reason, they check him into a carefully guarded (by a rent-a-cop) expensive hotel room with nothing but soft drinks and juices in the fridge. Everything’s taken care of…
But talk about diabolus ex machina! There’s a door ajar to the next room, which is well-stocked with booze. Charlie and Hugh find him dead drunk the next morning. What to do? Call in Harling, of course! Just how they know how to reach him isn’t clear, but he knows how to get him ready for his testimony: have him snort coke, the same thing he did to get “ready” for the flight. So there he is, before friendly examiner Ellen Brock (Melissa Leo), seeming perfectly sober as he denies having been drunk on the flight or having any problem with alcohol or drugs. But there’s still the business of the empty vodka bottles found on the plane (because of turbulence there was no drink service for passengers). It turns out that Trina’s blood test showed she had been drinking, and Ellen invites him to finger her for having drunk that vodka.
And all of a sudden, after all his lying and evasions, Whip suddenly has an attack of guilty conscience. He refuses to blacken Trina’s name, and confesses everything – to the consternation of Charlie, who tries to object (He isn’t even the lawyer! And he only objected when Whip told the truth, not when he lied!). Here is the movie’s moment of redemption, its moment of truth. But there has been so much contrived falsity in the events leading up to it that it doesn’t have the ring of truth. We are supposed to feel for Whip in the epilogue, where he’s in prison and sharing what he’s learned from his experience with fellow prisoners. But that too rings hollow, given the context of a story that seems to ignore the ghastly irresponsibility of his behavior before and during the flight, and seems to sympathize with his lapses afterwards.
Zemeckis and Gatin obviously had good intentions. But we all know what can be paved with good intentions.