Scientific research suggests that our genes consist of a natural instinct; a primitive act known as “Fight or Flight”. Of course, Robert Zemeckis’s picture Flight uses the latter in the blatant kinetic sense of a roaring aeroplane. But also, protagonist Captain Whip Whittaker (Denzel Washington) himself takes ‘flight’ in the case of our embedded instinct mentioned above. How? By avoiding the ‘fight’ option at every cost. His irrepressible alcohol and drug abuse are routes to escapism. His claim “I drink because I choose to!” is a choice forced upon him due to dependency, and the words of a man dripping in denial. Flight is more than an ‘event’ blockbuster; it is a ruthless character study examining addiction, confrontation, and refutation.
Flight begins with Whip taking to the cockpit following a heavy night of drinking, and a morning of cocaine abuse. He is nervously observed by his co-pilot as he attempts to pass around the plane oxygen masks as if they were a marijuana spliff at a party. “How you feeling today sir?” inquires his co-pilot, to which Whip replies “A little tired”. Minutes later, passengers are being dragged from the plane’s wreckage.
Running parallel is the story of Margaret (Tamara Tunie). Both her and Whip share the undesirable, yet seemingly uncontrollable need to lie and deceive as to fuel their addictions. She shoots up heroin despite even by warned by – get this – her own drug-dealer not to do so. Whip warmly welcomes and addresses the passengers on board his aircraft whilst discreetly popping vodka bottles and slipping them into his drink.
Margaret’s near-death overdose and Whip’s plight from above sees the parallel protagonists’ crossover as they both end up in the same hospital. It’s certainly Margaret’s fault she’s in there, and she knows that. How Whip came to be hospitalised is much more complex. Was it the faulty aircraft? Or was it Whip’s inability to fulfil his job description due to his intoxication? Lawyer Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle) is hired to ensure a sceptical inquiry does not result in Whip’s incarceration, whilst his party-animal pal Harling Mays (John Goodman) calls for a celebration and dubs Whip a hero for saving many lives. The rest of the movie shines a spotlight on Whip – whether it be a glow of heroism or shame is Flight’s enigma. Zemeckis drags out the jury verdict and forces the audience to evaluate the situation for themselves, and form their own opinions, whilst on-screen Margaret and Whip struggle to overcome their addictions.
Whilst Flight is in fact only airborne for less than 15 minutes; it’s a pulsating quarter-of-an-hour. I caught myself digging my fingernails into my seat as the screen flipped this-way-and-that. The noise of the screaming engine and the clunky-camera flickering between a clenched-up Whip in the cockpit and rows of helpless passengers in the body of the plane makes for a frighteningly authentic disaster zone. When this scene is beamed out from a big screen it’s as if you’re quite literally going to be blown away. Whilst I actively encourage most people to see this film, any particularly nervous flyers should probably take a pass. I say that begrudgingly, but necessarily. These fifteen-minutes are electrifying.
Riveting in the air, Flight largely holds up on the ground too. Some of the dialogue is intriguing; a scene in which Whip and Margaret encounter a terminal cancer patient sneaking a cigarette on the hospital stairs is particularly powerful. Whip is a man that we want to shake into seeing sense, yet continues to frustrate us. How we continue to sympathise with him is testimony not only to Washington but the rest of the cast too – the lawyer Lang’s conflicting admiration and frustration with Whip is palpable. The way in which Zemeckis consistently involves the viewer is thoroughly enjoyable.
Flight takes the aspect of alcoholism and drug abuse, and demonstrates the ramifications of not choosing the ‘Fight’ option in confronting them to ultimately save yourself. These themes have clogged up cinema screens since Hollywood went trigger-happy for taboo subjects from the late 1960’s onwards, but Flight ensures a different enough portrayal of them as to ensure it doesn’t crash land. Sure, there’s a little turbulence. 2Hrs 20mins is a little excessive in terms of running time, and we see Whip abusing substances way more than we need to in order for us to confirm that he’s an addict. But whilst the aftermath isn’t quite as enthralling as the flight itself, some engrossing acting by Washington coupled with solid displays from the likes of Cheadle, Goodman and Tunie, ensure that Flight remains a noteworthy piece of cinema from 2013. Although we’ve come to expect nothing less from Washington, his performance is still inspiring. So much so that he’s been put up for an incredible 6th Academy Award Nomination. Whilst it’s difficult to look past Daniel-Day Lewis’s seemingly effortless transformation into the16th American President in Lincoln for the 2013 award, Washington’s sky-high slurring is a more-than-credible competitor.