By Richard Schickel
“Flight” is a sober movie about an unsober airline pilot named “Whip” Whitaker (Denzel Washington) who, drunk as a skunk, flies his plane through a whole bunch of heavy weather, crash-lands it with minimal cost to human life and, for the rest of the film’s inordinate length (two and a half hours), tries bravely—though, of course, with many a slip—to regain permanent sobriety. I’ll leave it to you to guess if, eventually, he becomes a teetotaler.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with director Robert Zemeckis’ picture. It is well made, the crash sequence is particularly stirring and, in Washington, it has a leading actor of great, quiet force. He can collapse into a sodden, even squalid, drunkenness without yielding to self-pity, yet there is a certain wit about the man. He is, in some mysterious way, onto himself. We never doubt that he is redeemable, however low he sinks, that under the pressure of a government hearing into his conduct (and the opportunity to lie his way out of a situation that threatens him with jail and the end of his career) he will do the right, honorable thing, and end up as a better man for his travails. That this is accomplished without excessive piety speaks well for Washington and the screenwriter, John Gatins.
Yet, finally, “Flight” is a mildly unsatisfying film, chiefly, I think, because we’ve been here before. Ever since “The Lost Weekend” (yikes, that was back in 1945) the self-victimizing sot, the nice guy (or gal) who can’t stay off the sauce, has been something of a screen staple, and that curse has usually followed the same course. He fights his affliction, occasionally doing well in that battle, but he always backslides at several points until he arrives at what always seems to me a provisional victory over booze. I know, I know—millions have conquered alcoholism with the aid of Alcoholics Anonymous and their own rallying wills and their stories are, indeed, inspiring.
But there is something—well, clichéd—about these stories. The beats in these tales are all pretty much the same. I appreciate the decision to make Washington a flyboy. It imparts welcome glamour to the picture and that crash gives it a spectacular action sequence that you don’t expect to find in movies of this sort. “Flight” is, at some level, more entertaining than you’d expect it to be. John Goodman does a particularly nice turn as a raffish pal supplying drugs and comedy to Whip when he is in dire need of both.
Yet “Flight” never really takes off. It just kind of lunks along—not bad, but not very potent either. Or at least not as strong as it might have been. At its great length it needs to give us more than just some very good performances. It needs to give us a power that it flirts with but never fully delivers.
Still from Paramount Pictures