Denzel hits high point as drunken pilot in ‘Flight’
Denzel hits high point as drunken pilot in ‘Flight’

The first thing we need to do is acknowledge that Denzel Washington is a national treasure. He is one of the all-time great film actors, arguably the first black actor to truly transcend race and he can make really lousy movies like “Virtuosity” and “Déjà Vu” entirely watchable.

Denzel’s latest movie is called “Flight,” and if you had any doubts, the mere fact that I can get away with referring to him by his first name only proves his inherent coolness.

“Flight” is a movie that could be accused of misleading advertising. I usually don’t pay much attention to movie trailers, but I think the ones for this film really illustrate how it defies expectations.

In the ads we are introduced to Denzel as airline pilot Whip Whitaker who brings his plane in for a thrilling crash landing (more on this later), saving nearly all the passengers.

John Goodman shows up as some sort of scruffy hippy declaring him a hero before dour lawyer Don Cheadle informs us that Denzel landed the plane with alcohol in his blood. Uh-oh. There’s a quick montage of clips, we are made aware that the film is called “Flight” and is directed by Robert Zemeckis and then we are left to wonder what this movie is about.

Is it a thrilling tale of survival? Is it a riveting “A-Few-Good-Men”-style courtroom drama? How about a meditation on the price of unwanted fame in the Internet age?

Would you believe that “Flight” is actually a two-hour-and-twenty-minute study of alcoholism? Me neither, but you better believe that’s what it’s about – and surprisingly enough, I don’t really have a problem with that.

True, this movie is a little preachy. OK, fine, it’s a lot preachy. It’s so preachy that Denzel’s plane actually knocks the steeple off of a church before crashing into a field. Plus, for all you watch-checkers out there, “Flight” is at least 20 minutes too long.

But in spite of clunky character musings on “acts of God” and more than a few redundant scenes this movie actually worked for me for two huge reasons, Zemeckis and Denzel.

Zemeckis is best known for big movies that are a little too on the nose. His Best Director Oscar for “Forrest Gump” proves that. He has spent the past decade tinkering with motion-capture animation on movies like “The Polar Express” and “Beowulf,” so “Flight” marks an interesting return to flesh-and-blood filmmaking.

Zemeckis absolutely crushes the opening sequence with what is one of the greatest plane crash scenes in motion picture history. He actually makes you believe Denzel can fly an airliner upside-down! Great stuff.

Lots of movies have dealt with addiction and the vast majority of those are bleak downward spirals. “Flight” offers a different, albeit wildly uneven, take on alcoholism.

At first, we’re not sure if Denzel’s Whip is really even an addict. Sure, we see him take a drink and do a line of cocaine before going to work, but he lands the heck out of that plane and is cockily likable.

Even when Whip continues to hit rock bottom to the point that even romantic interest and recovering heroin addict Nicole (Kelly Reilly) can’t handle him anymore, we still find ourselves rooting for the guy and making excuses for him.

This is why “Flight” is a sneaky-good movie. Instead of portraying addiction as yet another bleak-as-night, “Leaving Las Vegas,” one-note affliction, Zemeckis and Denzel give us an addict that is as charming as he is belligerent.

On most occasions, he actually functions at a high level while drunk and by giving us space to rationalize his disease, thanks to some cleverly used movie conventions, we become his enabler.

The bigger point is that this movie comes nowhere near to working without Denzel. It’s hard to think of another actor who could pull off this part without making Whip seem loathsome or inauthentic. Like I said: national treasure.

“Flight” is rated R for drug and alcohol abuse, language, sexuality/nudity, and an intense action sequence.

You might also like...