Though it's hampered by some formulaic touches (like a false-ringing romance and a final scene too bent on lifting spirits), Flight is one unique, audacious studio movie, kicking off as a star-driven spectacle before whittling itself down to a raw and riveting character study. Telling the story of hotshot airline pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington), whose work life is as thoroughly well-drawn as his baleful alcoholism, the film channels a cautionary addict's tale through a probing outline of an occupation, tying it all together with one electrifying incident. Returning to live action for the first time since 2000's Cast Away, Robert Zemeckis directs a script by John Gatins, who's been kicking around the project for about as long as Zemeckis has been immersed in motion capture.
Flight's knockout first act shows the pair in expert sync, with the filmmaker bringing to breathtaking life a wild, airborne catastrophe. After spending all night drinking and bedding a young stewardess, Whip heads off to pilot a morning flight carrying 102 people, his only pick-me-up a line of coke he vigorously rails in his hotel room. Thunderstorms give way to turbulence, and turbulence is followed by a nasty malfunction, at which point Whip's jet plummets into a nosedive, prompting the pilot to act on instinct and invert the aircraft, flying it upside down to force a leveling out. Co-pilot Ken (Brian Geraghty) and head flight attendant Margaret (Tamara Tunie) scream in terror as the blood rushes to their heads, but Whip pulls the maneuver off, crashing the jet as safely as possible in an open field, and saving all but six lives.
With the help of cinematographer Don Burgess, Zemeckis crafts the dive into one of the most gripping airplane sequences in memory, after already raising the tension by putting a tanked Whip behind the yoke. In the first phase of a hugely praiseworthy performance, Washington is on the same page as his director, nailing a precarious mode of controlled chaos, and only breaking composure during heart-stopping moments, such as when the plane's wing lops off a church steeple during its final descent (in a standout bit showing uncanny awareness, Whip tells Margaret to "speak to the black box" and tell her son she loves him). The immediate worry is that Flight won't be able to sustain its opening's brio, but the fascination of its world quickly curbs the need for alarm. Laid out in a hospital bed, Whip is soon visited by pal and union rep Charlie (Bruce Greenwood), along with federal suits investigating the crash. The authorities' protocolic breakdown of events keeps viewer enthrallment rolling, and Flight begins its seamless shape-shift into legal-drama-cum-broken-man-chronicle.
The addiction element is ushered in with the aid of a parallel storyline, which sees redheaded doper Nicole (Kelly Reilly) hit rock bottom just as Whip's plane meets the earth. It's a familiar scenario, complete with an empty needle alongside a passed-out, overdosed beauty, and the character is largely superfluous in the long run. But when Nicole winds up in the same Georgia hospital as Whip, and initiates a romance that surely violates the recovery code of ethics (she kicks her habit; his gets worse), the pilot gets his first glimpse of a way out, sharing life with someone shaking off his sort of wretched existence. Of course, Whip is also facing the threat of a literal prison, as post-crash toxicology reports reveal his high-on-the-job misdeeds, which included downing three mini Smirnoff bottles just outside the cockpit. Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle), a subtly venomous, all-star defense attorney, assures Whip that he'll get the reports dropped, but there's still the matter of those bottles, which were found in the wrecked plane's garbage. A push-pull of moral obligation is a key component of Flight's dramatic wings, as Whip's lie-fueled freedom would be as much a face-saving victory for the union and airline as it would a jail-time deterrent (if convicted, he could face life behind bars for multiple counts of manslaughter). Did Whip's drinking and drug use have anything to do with the accident? Would everyone have lived if he'd been lucid? Can he pilot his way out of a damning sentence too?
"No one else could have landed that plane like I did," Whip repeatedly insists. And, indeed, Lang informs his client that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) conducted numerous simulated reenactments, with each (sober) pilot crashing the aircraft every time. Having already shaped a compelling screenplay out of, reportedly, his two greatest fears (succumbing to addiction and dying in a plane crash), Gatins deserves applause for weaving in his endorsement of questioning our heroes, who are no more above the law than the hoi polloi they save. Whip is initially shocked that he's even being questioned, which is perfect, because, as an addict, he already has a rock-hard sense of entitlement. Flight proceeds to chip off that persona, and it's eerily canny in illustrating the way that addicts behave. Tucked away from the public with an illness that's inherently isolating, Whip wallows in drunken home-movie viewings on his family's farm, where Nicole warms his bed and watches his undoing. There's no levity in his benders, nor in a visit he makes to his ex-wife and son, wherein, rather than throwing a commonplace tantrum, he playfully and heartbreakingly strong-arms his kid into a hug, only to scare the shit out of the family he's lost.
Washington hits you in the gut with every beat, making Flight near-transcendent even when a hippie dealer (played by John Goodman, the year's go-to human laugh track) nudges the film off its forthright trajectory. There's a beautiful nighttime scene that precedes Whip's NTSB hearing. It takes place in a hotel, where Whip's booze-sweeped room is unexpectedly joined to another, unoccupied and equipped with a fully stocked mini-fridge. After hearing the tap of a faulty dead bolt and entering the room, Whip glances out a window and sees an airplane dart across the dark sky. He hears the fridge hum to life before opening it to find its glowing stash. It's not the end of the film, but it's Zemeckis's poetic, wordless peak, a nerve-jangling hinge moment that sums up the plight of this pilot/addict/man, who, to survive, must let go of the controls and surrender.