I’ve seen two films that deal with alcoholism this year, and Robert Zemeckis‘ Flight is the weaker of the two. Earlier this year, I saw Smashed, an honest, unflinching look at a woman struggling to get sober. In all fairness, Flight isn’t about the quest to get sober, as much as it brushes up against interesting notions of control. Unfortunately, these notions become overshadowed as the film boils down the protagonist’s weakness into obvious plot points, character motivations, and a sermonizing finish that undermines the promise of a more textured, thoughtful story.
If the guy who works bagging groceries down at the local supermarket is a drug addict, it’s very sad, but your life isn’t exactly in his hands. The problem becomes somewhat more serious when the addict is an airline pilot like Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington). Whip has no problem drinking and doing coke at the crack of dawn before getting on board to pilot a commercial airline. He’s a functioning addict, but his abilities become severely tested when his plane suffers a mechanical failure. Shockingly, he manages to bring the craft down and save the lives of almost all the passengers. While he’s being hailed as a hero by the media, Whip’s life becomes jeopardized as the NTSB uncovers a couple of telltale vodka bottles in the trash. Meanwhile, Whip struggles with alcoholism while finding a partner in Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a fellow addict.
Zemeckis manages to captivate from the start with a darkly comic opening that shows off Whip’s recklessness before boarding the flight. Then we move into a terrifying and masterfully crafted sequences where we see Whip take full command of the failing aircraft. The crash-sequence is so powerful that you’ll seriously consider ever getting on a plane again. Unfortunately, after Whip wakes up in the hospital, Flight mostly putters along with a few bright but brief performances from John Goodman as Whip’s dealer, and James Badge Dale as a cancer patient Nicole and Whip meet in the hospital’s stairwell.
The movie never quite manages to push past the surface of Whip’s alcoholism and drug use. We see what feels like the textbook behavior of an addict. He throws out his booze only to have a moment of weakness and relapse. He goes to a meeting, but denies he has a problem. Later, he admits he has a problem, but because he accepts it, he doesn’t see it as a problem. The investigation into the crash almost seems unnecessary since Whip’s problems are more serious than whether or not he’ll be found a hero or a fraud. Whip hides out from the media so public perception isn’t really a concern, and without any close relationships, what does Whip really have to lose by being thrown in prison? It’s not like he wouldn’t be able to get drugs anymore.
These weak stakes constantly detract from the more interesting question Flight raises: is control an illusion? In its best and yet most frustrating moments, the movie peeks over the edge of religion and how faith is an act of grasping for control in an chaotic universe. Whit’s plane smashes a church steeple, but the congregation’s members are outside praying and are able to help the crash’s survivors. The pilots’ union lawyer (Don Cheadle) fights to get “Act of God” listed as a possible reason why the plane crashed. A couple of the crash survivors talk about miracles and how God saved them. God is the universe’s control. Meanwhile, Whip is a character who’s only in control when he’s out of control. The crash sequence is a perfect opening metaphor to represent Whip’s character.
But Zemeckis never figures out how to take this exploration any deeper. Whip becomes a static, repetitive, and predictable character, and it’s a character we’ve seen done with more depth and nuance in Smashed or FX’s Rescue Me. We know what an addict looks like, and Flight doesn’t have anything to add to the depiction, so even a talented actor like Washington can’t go any deeper than what we know the character is going to do. Rather than painful, complicated ambiguity leaving us to wonder how much control we have over our lives, Flight lands with a mawkish, sermonizing finish that ends with an affirmation rather than a question.