It's not so much a movie about conquering inner demons as it is a movie about making them part of the everyday routine.
Also, there's a plane crash.
Whip Whitaker (2012 Oscar nominee Denzel Washington) is an airline pilot with a penchant for hard-drinking, drug binges, and casual sex. It becomes readily apparent that flying planes while under the influence - while it may be front-page news when discovered in the real world - is just an average Friday morning for Whip.
In the midst of a short flight from Orlando to Atlanta, his plane malfunctions and Whip pulls off a landing that can only be described as miraculous. As the investigation into the crash goes deeper, it becomes obvious that Whip was intoxicated at the time, and this portion of the plot unfurls much as you might expect, based on the film's trailer and marketing.
About five minutes into the movie, though, it becomes clear that the plane crash is only the MacGuffin in the story - it's the incidental event that drives into motion one of the most rich and captivating character studies that have been committed to film in years.
Conventional movie wisdom would suggest that the entire film would be about Whip's struggle to get sober - the portrait of a man desperate to get the proverbial monkey off his back. Much to the contrary, Whip makes, at best, a minimal effort to conceal his addictions. If anything, this is the story about a man who embraces his faults and simply rolls with the punches.
While recovering in the hospital after the crash, he meets Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a recovering heroin addict facing her own uphill battle. She sees in Whip a kindred spirit and someone with whom she can embark on the journey to sobriety. But Whip won't have any of it, and in the end she unwittingly becomes the latest in a long line of enablers.
The film climaxes with Whip facing a federal inquiry into the events of the crash and being forced to make a life-altering decision when he's one final chance to put the event behind him and carry on with his continual downward spiral of a life.
Robert Zemeckis makes his return to live-action filmmaking after a decade of motion-capture animation, and he returns with what might be his finest film yet - and this is the man behind Who Framed Roger Rabbit and the Back to the Future trilogy.
The Oscar-nominated script from John Gatins fires on all cylinders and provides a picture-perfect blueprint for Zemeckis to tell a well-rounded story that hits hard with tortured, pained souls but knows when to pull back and ease the tension with a well-placed but never obvious one-liner.
Washington is fantastic as Whip. I can't think of any other actor who could pull off this role. Denzel Washington is one of the most likable actors of his stature in the business, and yet there is hardly a frame to be found in this movie in which Whip is anything remotely resembling likable.
Whip Whitaker is, to be frank, a horrible human being, and yet even his utter refusal at all attempts to redeem him never make him a character we tire of following - I found myself engrossed and wanting to know what would happen to him next.
Kelly Reilly's performance is also magnificent, and I find myself bewildered by the fact that she didn't receive recognition from the Academy. Her performance as Nicole is extremely well-rounded - she is a truly pitiful character but Reilly never allows her to come off as a victim, per se. Like Whip, her inner prison is entirely of her own construction, and she owns up to that fact.
But unlike Whip, she wants a second chance.
There's also the venerable and always-reliable Bruce Greenwood as Charlie Anderson, Whip's pilot union representative and his only friend. He's backed up by Don Cheadle, who plays Hugh Lang, Whip's legal representation.
Together, their characters serve as Whip's Jiminy Cricket - they want him to sober up, but when the mountain seems too high to climb they join Nicole in the enablers' line.
Rounding out the cast is John Goodman as the scene-stealing Harling Mays, Whip's drug hook-up. Harling's role in the film is simple: Lighten things up when they need lightened up. Goodman chews the scenery every time he's put on camera and provides a brief breath of fresh air to bridge the often-uncomfortable ride that is Whip Whitaker's life.
Brilliant script. Brilliant cast. Brilliant direction.
Spoiler: I'm giving the movie a 10 at the end.
Paramount brings Flight in for a smooth landing on Blu-ray, presenting the film in a beautiful MPEG-4 AVC encode, the best in a seemingly never-ending series of gorgeous high-def releases from Paramount. The amount of detail visible in Flight is striking as everything from the texture of clothing to the sweat beads on peoples' faces comes across as incredibly lifelike.
The audio is equally magnificent, particularly during the plane crash sequence. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless track provides a lifelike quality. The track handles ambiance remarkably well, most notably during some quiet, dialogue-heavy scenes at Whip's family farm when wind blowing through the endless fields add to the richness of the scenes without calling attention to them.
Beyond the Feature
Flight offers a fairly standard but still informative and entertaining array of bonus features.
In Origins of Flight (10 min), Gatin, Zemeckis, and the cast discuss their first reactions to the script and their motivations to become involved with the picture. Again, fairly standard, but the subjects are engaging and enthusiastic about the material, and it's abundantly clear that none of the big names involved with this production had to be talked into it.
Next up is The Making of 'Flight' (11 min), the bulk of which is devoted to the construction of the plane crash scene as well as some insight into the training Washington received from real-life airline pilots.
Anatomy of a Plane Crash (7 min) expands on some of the material in the Making Of documentary with special emphasis on the evolution of the scene from pre-visualization to the fantastic final product displayed in the film.
Rounding out the special features is the Q&A Highlights (14 min), in which John Horn of the Los Angeles Times hosts a question-and-answer session with the cast and crew (absent Washington). It isn't exactly a super candid affair, but any time you can see a director, a writer, and the cast on stage discussing a project in an informal setting it's a treat.
Also included is a DVD and UltraViolet copy of the film. All bonus features are presented in high definition.
A film this great deserved more extras, but at the end of the day a masterful work of cinema is a reward in and of itself.
Flight is a truly great movie that goes deeper into the psyche of an addict than it had to. It isn't an uplifting story of redemption, and it isn't an arduous struggle for survival.
It's a simple story about complex people.
And also there's a plane crash.
- Jason Jarman
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