‘Whip’ Whittaker (Denzel Washington) wakes up in a hotel room, disentangles himself from last night’s paramour, Katerina (Nadine Velazquez), surveys the wreckage of liquor bottles, does a line of cocaine, argues with his ex-wife, then heads to his day job. As a commercial pilot.
While his co-pilot, the straitlaced Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty) thinks something is amiss with Whip, it is smooth sailing as Whip pulls off an audacious move to get the plane through some bad weather then rewards himself with a mid-flight vodka and orange juice.
Then things start to go very, very wrong. In one of the most gripping set pieces seen on the big screen in years, the plane finds itself in trouble and not responding to any of the usual fixes. It is soon plummeting towards earth and the passengers and crew resort to panic and prayer. Whip, however, remains cool and in a brilliant piece of quick thinking, inverts the plane to take much of the force out of the landing. The manoeuvre mitigates what could have been complete calamity and when the wreckage is surveyed, only six people have lost their lives.
After such a bold start, the film moves into the more familiar territory of addiction drama, but there is far too much complexity and moral nuance here for the film to be anything less than intriguing. It is revealed the plane wasn’t properly maintained and was an accident waiting to happen. Whip’s audacious actions were not performed in spite of his state of inebriation but actually because of it. Another pilot, one free of drugs and alcohol, could not have done what he did and saved as many lives as he did.
He meets heroin addict Nicole (Kelly Reilly) in hospital, and the pair are soon shacked up at a secluded cottage, hiding from the world. But when the legal ramifications of the crash ramp up after Whip has a testy meeting with Hugh (an excellent Don Cheadle), a driven criminal lawyer who is confident he can have Whip’s toxicology report thrown out as evidence, he falls back off the wagon, skulling vodka with a vengeance and hatching plans to escape to Jamaica in a small plane.
Whip’s actions become increasingly pathetic as his supporters try to curb his powerful self-destructive streak and keep him from having a public meltdown before the hearing that will hopefully clear his name for good. Still, he insists he drinks because he wants to. He’s had years of practice at getting away with it and finds himself on the brink of freedom.
If Flight loses its nerve somewhat in the closing minutes, it only serves to cast the truthful and arresting drama that has come before in an even brighter light. Featuring one of the best performances in Washington’s career, it’s a tough and taut film which asks questions that linger long after its closing credits.
Originally appeared in: Concrete Playground