Flight is a movie that peaks during its opening scenes, but what a peak it is. Its first act plane-crash sequence is the movie’s clear peak, an edge-of-your-seat ten minutes that are both breathlessly thrilling and terrifyingly believable. In the cockpit is Whip Whittaker (Denzel Washington), a seasoned airline pilot with a serious alcohol and drug addiction. Coming off a night of heavy drinking and a morning of cocaine use, Whip’s seemingly routine morning flight from Orlando to Atlanta suffers a severe mechanical error. Through a combination of Zen-like calm and sheer skill, Whip manages to land the plane in a field with only six lives lost. Though hailed as a hero by the media, he’s too busy mourning the death of his flight attendant paramour to bask in the spotlight.
After the crash, Whip makes a brief attempt to get sober, but quickly relapses when his buddies at the pilots’ union tell him his post-crash blood test showed alcohol in his system. With the help of a slick lawyer (Don Cheadle), they have a plan to get him off scot-free, but in order to do so he must be questioned at a formal hearing. Meanwhile, Whip strikes up a friendship, then romance, with Nicole (a nicely understated Kelly Reilly), a recovering heroin addict who he meets in the hospital.
Above all else, Flight is a star vehicle for Denzel Washington, and a rousingly successful one at that. It gives him a variety of notes to play, and makes the most of his larger-than-life charisma while still being unafraid to make him genuinely unlikable at times; showcasing his characters’ abject alcoholism as well as his self-enabling charm. His performance is so good that he almost makes you forget how unfocused the movie becomes in its midsection, which spends too much time on repetitive scenes of Whip and Nicole’s relationship. Thankfully, Flight ramps up the drama for the third act as it approaches the climactic hearing, the only moment in the movie that approaches the highs of the plane crash.
Flight’s ensemble is rounded out by a solid crew of character actors, including John Goodman as Whip’s gregarious, caring drug dealer. He gives the only truly showy performance as the de facto comic relief, and the movie wisely chooses to limit his appearances to a few key scenes. His boisterous Southern burnout is funny and likable in small doses, but any more of him would risk compromising the tone.
More often than not, Flight pulls off a nifty balancing act, lending gravity to Whip’s family troubles and struggles with addiction but never resorting to sentimentality. Occasionally the movie gets a little too liberal with Alan Silvestri’s broad score, but generally it’s confident enough to let the drama speak for itself. And though the alcoholism plotline isn’t particularly new, Washington’s performance and John Gatins’s screenplay give it emotional heft while (mostly) dodging cliché. Flight may not see Robert Zemeckis at his absolute, crowd-pleasing best, but it’s still a fine, rock-solid piece of mass entertainment.