Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle, John Goodman, Bruce Greenwood, Kelly Reilly. Directed by Robert Zemeckis.
The thing about Flight that made the biggest impression on me is impossible to describe without spoiling the film, so I’ll save that comment for the very end of this thing with a warning to mark it.
What I will say is that there was a point in this movie where I sat up straight and whispered to myself, “Whoa. This is going to be the most __________ movie I’ve ever seen.” When a film does that to you, as long as whatever’s in that blank is not something that you hate (“most violent,” “most cliche,” and “most manipulative” would make my list), it becomes more meaningful and perhaps more admirable than you’d otherwise give it credit for. Until that moment, I thought I knew exactly what I was seeing, so props to the film for giving me at least that pause.
Denzel Washington plays Whip Whitaker, an alcoholic airline pilot who pulls off a preposterous stunt to save his nose-diving jet from killing everyone on board, not to mention a bunch of people in houses on the ground. He’s like that real-life Sully guy who crash-landed his plane on the Hudson River five years ago: a hero no matter how you look at it.
Where the public is treated to its (and the media’s) portrayal of Whitaker as a hero, the film’s audience sees the rest of the story. The first person to speak to Whitaker when he awakens from unconsciousness is his union representative. Then he speaks with six agents of the NTSB. And then his drug-dealer, played by John Goodman, and then his union-appointed lawyer, played by Don Cheadle. There’s a lot going on that the public never sees, including toxicology reports and the testimony of the flight’s crew.
Washington and Cheadle together in one movie were reason enough for me to see it, and they don’t disappoint. Washington plays it pretty low-key (for him), and Cheadle is his usual steady self. I love watching Cheadle act, and could really have used more dialogue between his character and Washington’s. There is also an unexpected performance by Kelly Reilly as something of a love interest. Reilly does one of those jobs that gets nominated for supporting-actress Oscars, in the manner of Marisa Tomei and Mercedes Ruehl, if not quite as good. It’s not her fault. Tomei and Ruehl had better material.
If you think you’ve seen the whole movie because you’ve seen the trailer, you’re almost right. There’s a bit more to it than that, but I’ve got to say that while I found the film engaging and its actors comfortable (and enjoyable) to watch, taken as a whole, it’s about what you’d expect if all you’ve seen is the trailer. See it if you love Denzel (and/or Goodman and/or Cheadle), but try to go in with moderate expectations.
Don’t read past this sentence if you don’t want the film spoiled. There is a moment near the end where I thought the happy ending was going to come in a manner I don’t think you could predict. When I saw the film going down that path, I said, “Whoa. This is going to be the most cynical movie I’ve ever seen.” I’m not a big fan of cynicism, but I think a lot can be explored when a work of art is itself cynical. It was going to make some of the characters lose any admiration we might have had for them, as if to ask the viewer if we’re willing to accept our happy ending—and our hero—even at that cost. I don’t think I’d have liked the film more with that ending, but I think I would somehow have respected it more, because the ending we get is right out of the Lifetime Network, and it’s an ending we’ve seen fifty other times.