Flight opens with a fascinatingly shot scene – the only one in an airplane for the rest of the film. Captain Whip Whitaker arrives on time for a routine flight from Orlando to Atlanta after a night of alcohol-fuelled sex with a stewardess and a quick line of cocaine to wake him up in the morning. Almost immediately following the flight’s takeoff, serious turbulence ensues and Whip finds himself struggling for control of the plane. After the tail suddenly suffers a malfunction, Whip manages to fly the plane upside long enough to land in a field next to a church, saving almost all of those onboard. This is the action that fuels the rest of the movie, and the ultimate moral dilemma posed by this film. No other pilot could have landed that plane like Whip did and saved all of those people – precisely because he was high while he was flying.
The film never sets out to answer this question; instead it chooses to lead us through the aftermath of subsequent hearings, as well as following Whip through his personal struggle with alcohol abuse. After he wakes up in an Atlanta hospital, Whip is introduced to a union representative Charlie (Bruce Greenwood) and later attorney Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle). The lawyer promises to have the toxicology report annulled due to technical or clerical errors, and the union rep. says that while Whip is potentially facing drug and manslaughter charges, they’ll do their best to help him. However, Whip doesn’t seem to want any help, and after a visit from his dealer Harling (John Goodman), he retreats to his family’s farm to drink himself into a blackout state.
Denzel Washington’s performance here is subtly brilliant in its exploration of Whip’s tragedy. We see the goodness deep inside Whip as he helps Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a woman struggling from overdose among other problems, but his consistent alcoholism and drug abuse continues to deteriorate any and all human relationships he has left. Washington portrays Whip Whitaker as a man caught in a haunting cycle, and its rare we see a performance that invokes so much sympathy despite the circumstances of the character’s conditions.
Overall, Flight stands above what it could almost have been with any other lesser director and star. Robert Zemekis films with precision and craft, while Denzel Washington helms the cast as Captain Whitaker in one of the greatest roles of his career. Flight remains a character study, yet it still manages to invoke reflection on the part of the audience members as they struggle to decide whether they truly want to sympathize with Whip.