The best scene in Flight comes early and will undoubtedly stay with you a good long time: A commercial pilot (Denzel Washington) tries to land a crashing plane full of terrified passengers in a field near Atlanta. It’s a horrifying, nauseating, expertly shot sequence that is bound to send nervous fliers off in search of a Xanax prescription the next time they have to board a plane.
The rest of the movie — directed by Robert Zemeckis ( Cast Away, What Lies Beneath, the Back to the Future films) — is turbulent, too, in an entirely different way. The pilot, who goes by the cocky name of Whip, succeeds in bringing down the plane with only six fatalities, a feat remarkable enough to be termed a miracle without the slightest hint of condescension. The cause of the accident is clearly faulty equipment. The problem is that when he managed to land the plane, Whip was legally drunk and high on cocaine, and the chances of him staying sober long enough to survive the required post-disaster hearings are slim.
An old friend representing the pilot’s union (Bruce Greenwood) introduces Whip to an attorney (Don Cheadle) who’s determined to get the sullen, defensive Whip through his upcoming hearing without a prison sentence. But lives have been lost, and someone is going to pay.
Flight, then, is not about post-traumatic stress or survivor’s guilt; it’s an examination of a man’s inability to come to terms with his alcoholism. But once you get past the intriguing fact that although Whip’s job puts hundreds of lives into his hands on a daily basis yet he’s cavalier about protecting them, the movie doesn’t feel much different than any other exploration of addiction. All the usual cliches are here. Whip has a shattered marriage in his past and is estranged from his teenage son. He hooks up with a young drug addict (Kelly Reilly) who’s trying to get sober. He lashes out at anyone who tries to help him even as he promises, “I can stop on my own.” Like the occasional piece of lost luggage, the conveniently pat ending feels inevitable.
A bloated, disheveled Washington makes a good drunk, never relying on his personal charm to sway the audience: We know this careless, selfish man deserves the harshest sentence a judge cares to hand down, even if he performed shockingly well under real pressure. But some of Zemeckis’ choices are questionable. He uses Whip’s young, religious co-pilot (Brian Geraghty) as a punchline. John Goodman shows up twice as Whip’s fast-talking, pony-tailed dealer; the first time, he struts into the hospital to the groaningly obvious strains of Sympathy for the Devil. He’s in the film as comic relief, and he’s sure to get a few laughs. But while a movie as grim as Flight could use a moment or two of levity, does it have to be in service to the antithetical idea that drug dealers are awesome? Goodman’s very existence belies the point Flight is trying to make: addiction ruins your life. Not that we didn’t know that already.