One of the most dangerous features of an addiction is its tendency to allow for moments of clarity. At various points in an addiction, we stumble upon moments of sanity and strength. However, rather than exposing the addiction to us, our sanity convinces us that the addiction isn’t there. We are doomed by our small successes, demoted to ever lower circles of Hell, all the while convinced that we haven’t left earth because, through the right lens, fire can look a lot like sunlight.
“Flight,” Robert Zemeckis’ newest film (and his first live action feature in 12 years) attempts to tackle this very problem as it dives into an examination of alcoholism, drug addiction, and the mental machinery that allows the two to occupy their host’s brain uninterrupted. The film stars Denzel Washington as pilot William “Whip” Whitaker, a heavy drinker and habitual drug user who is thrust into the public eye after he miraculously lands a malfunctioning airliner in the middle of a field against all odds. A subsequent investigation into the catastrophe reveals that Whitaker had both alcohol and cocaine in his system at the time of the flight, a fact which makes him vulnerable to manslaughter charges for the few who didn’t survive the landing and, as a result, life in prison. The film proceeds to examine Whitaker’s battle with his drinking and his relationship with fellow addict Nicole (Kelly Reilly) while simultaneously keeping track of the ongoing legal proceedings following the crash. It eventually ties these strands together at the end, maybe a little too neatly.
For the most part “Flight” is a success, mainly because of Washington’s performance, which easily ranks among his best. He portrays Whitaker as arrogant and stubborn without turning the audience off to the character, even in his darkest moments of rage and self-justification. In truth, all the performances are quite good. Reilly’s Nicole is heartbreakingly fragile yet sustained by a deep reservoir of strength, while Don Cheadle as Whitaker’s lawyer Hugh Lang and Bruce Greenwood as Whitaker’s friend and advocate both elevate the role of frustrated companion. All of the performers, right down to the smallest roles, transcend their potential to be simple didactic cookie cutters keeping the audience focused on Washington’s violently empathetic portrayal. If only the rest of the film did the same.
For me, “Flight’s” biggest weakness came in the way it chose to discuss Whitaker’s drinking, assuming a position of compassionate but removed examination. Aside from the nuance of Washington’s performance, the movie offers very few moments during which we are really able to get inside Washington’s head and understand the nitty gritty of his addiction. His disease has no meaning to us other than as the focus of the film, and parts of the script seem to work against Washington’s attempts to add weight to his inner turmoil.
That’s not to say we don’t care. We do. The film absolutely deserves praise for its ability to build tension around questions of the pilot’s habits but, in many ways, this tension remains anchored in the more concrete conflict of the film, the very tangible fear that we will see this character we love go to prison.
When Whitaker stumbles upon a hotel mini-fridge full of alcohol, we feel anxious, worrying that he’ll give in. But even then, it’s not because we understand what succumbing to these demons means internally to Whip, nor because we ourselves know what it means to have a hunger that moves from domineering to oppressive. Rather, we worry because, objectively, we understand that alcoholism is bad and that Whitaker is an alcoholic. We worry for Whip as his friends do, as companions who want the best for their friend stress over that fellow’s bad decisions. Our fear is grounded in a detached understanding of the situation and a narrative understanding of the film, rather than in our comprehension of the actual machinery of the addiction.
The one moment when the film really moves past this occurs right at the beginning, in what is sure to be one of the movie’s most talked-about scenes. Rising beside a naked flight attendant, Washington readies himself for a day’s work which, in the world of Whip Whitaker, involves the remains of a beer and a line of cocaine. As Whitaker measures out the coke, the camera sets itself up at the end of the line while strains of jazzy rock can be heard in the background. Without any warning, Washington does the line, rocketing towards the camera at such a speed that the frame shakes, just as the music roars into the foreground. The scene then cuts to Whitaker, sauntering confidently toward his plane in full pilot’s gear, aviators on. The sense of seduction and power here is palpable and truly helps us understand the allure of these mistakes that Washington continues to make. It also highlights the film’s stellar use of music, which cannot go unmentioned (John Goodman as Whitaker’s friend and dealer strolling toward his buddy’s hospital room with a bag full of vodka and porn, set to the opening drums of “Sympathy for the Devil,” is a moment of perfection).
The other scene sure to garner a great deal of praise is the depiction of the titular flight, which jams the camera up into the cockpit of the aircraft to maximize the moment’s claustrophobia and peril. Alternation between these tight, cramped shots and larger ones of the plane in dive create a perilous rhythm that will make many uneasy about flying in the near future.
But it’s these sequences of blistering, toxic subjectivity that remind us now the film falters, becoming stiff and instructive in its second act. As the film sags dangerously toward lecture, we lose sight of the danger, both psychological and physiological, that the opening moments of the film promised. Rather, we now are put at much greater distance from the events, asked to analyze them rather than find ourselves wrapped up in them. This is, of course, a valid way to discuss addiction in a film, and on those terms, Zemeckis has made an incredibly effective one.
However, Washington’s performance serves as a constant reminder of how close “Flight” could get to the topic, how personal things could have become, and that became a distraction. In the movie’s climax and conclusion, which brings together the conclusions of both conflicts, I couldn’t help but feel a tad manipulated. The scene was clearly designed to bring about catharsis in its audience but, for me, the relief I felt never achieved the realness of the character for whom I felt it. Though I was happy for Whip at the end of the film, I was still deeply haunted knowing that, while the devils of addiction are very present beyond the corners of the frame, the redemption on display would only ever be narrative.