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Film review: Return of the live-action Zemeckis

Director lands on firm ground with a character-rich thriller, 'Flight'

November 02, 2012|By Andy Klein
  • Denzel Washington is "Whip Whitaker" in Robert Zemeckis' latest film "Flight."
Denzel Washington is "Whip Whitaker" in Robert… (Courtesy of Paramount…)

From the ads and trailers, you might think that “Flight” is some sort of legal thriller, with Denzel Washington's character being unfairly accused or even framed; and you'd be about 10% right. In fact, “Flight” is primarily a moral character drama of the subspecies “addiction.” Its greatest suspense centers on how low the hero's self-sabotage will take him.

Washington plays Whip Whitaker, an experienced airline pilot who for many years has managed to hide his alcoholism from his corporate overlords. His co-workers know the score, but no one wants to rat out a colleague who, despite his condition, has unparalleled knowledge, intelligence, agility and calmness under fire. One day, when his plane gets into trouble, he pulls insane maneuvers to land as safely as possible. The results are both horrible and miraculous. Yes, six people die, but 96 of the 102 onboard survive (albeit some of them severely injured). Should Whip be lauded as the savior of the 96? Or damned as the killer of the six?

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The film leaves little doubt that the crash was primarily the result of mechanical faults and maintenance neglect. But that little doubt still nags: If he had been sober (and awake), might he have spotted the problems earlier? Or, conversely, could his drunkenness have been a plus, enabling him to stay calm in a situation where anyone else (including his green, panicky copilot) would have failed?

The scrutiny of the investigation — which could land him life in prison — requires a period of forced sobriety, but it also drives him to drink. His lawyer (Don Cheadle) and oldest friend (Bruce Greenwood) are laboring to dry him out. But when his alcoholism repeatedly intervenes, he gets furious at them and becomes uncooperative. Throughout this, he strikes up (and screws up) a relationship with a recovering junkie (Kelly Reilly), who tries to get him to AA.

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