Denzel Washington delivers an award worthy performance as airline pilot Whip Whitaker, a man who has somehow managed to keep his job while nursing both an alcohol and cocaine addiction. But one fateful day his drug dependencies are revealed after, through no apparent fault on his part, the plane he’s flying suffers a major malfunction and nose-dives toward the ground. His younger Christian and sober co-pilot (Brian Geraghty) panics while the drugged up captain coolly performs a literal death-defying maneuver and lands the plane in a field. The somewhat explicit crash leaves a half-dozen people dead, but the vast majority of passengers survive and hail Whip a hero.
A few days later, after Whip has partially recovered from his injuries, he is faced with the facts. The NTSB investigation has revealed the alcohol and drugs in the pilot’s bloodstream and now Whip is facing possible manslaughter charges for the deaths caused by the accident. Initially still denying the charges, even to his own appointed lawyer (Don Cheadle), we begin to see the depth of addiction this man has succumb to.
It’s a testament to Washington’s acting abilities that it is so painful to watch his character throughout this movie. Periods of brief sobriety are short lived and even after his hotshot lawyer manages to get him off the hook, he is still bound by his uncontrollable urge to drink. It certainly is an accurate depiction of an alcoholic who is nowhere near “Step 1” of any recover program.
Perhaps the biggest surprise about Flight is the focus on substance abuse as opposed to the crash itself, and that’s probably wise considering there is far more fiction than fact in this script based on an actual event. (The original pilot served jail time for drug trafficking nearly two decades prior to his heroic crash avoidance, and he was not under the influence of chemicals during the incident.) However while the script goes to great lengths to show the destruction caused by Whip’s behavior there is a sense he was reasonably competent in spite of his intoxication, perhaps even implying that had he not been stoned when the plane tilted out of control he would not have been able to pull of the heroic landing. This could leave viewers, both old and young, with the opposite message this movie appears to be suggesting.
Related to this concern are scenes that show Whip using cocaine to quickly recover from the intoxicating effects of alcohol—both prior to flying the plane and appearing at an important investigatory hearing. This unintended lesson on the benefits of snorting after boozing is another potentially dangerous element. Other content issues include full female nudity during the first few minutes of the film and dozens of sexual expletives, some sexual comments, a multitude of scatological slang and other profanities, terms of deity and derogatory statements heard throughout.
In the end we see hope for Washington’s high-flying character, however this artistically capable film risks taking viewers down a runway paved mostly with good intentions.