It's been a while since I've seen a film that has managed to mix in more than a few genres and still succeed in riveting the viewers' interest. Robert Zemeckis's latest film Flight is one such hybrid.
Though largely listed as a drama, the film combines action, suspense, and an intense character study, all in its slightly lengthy, but still engrossing 139 minutes.
Starring Denzel Washington as airline pilot captain William 'Whip' Whitaker, the film starts off with Washington's character waking up in a hotel room next to a beautiful naked woman. The two have partied hard, that much is clear from the empty bottles lying around the room as well as the disheveled and slightly pained faces of the two occupants. When the woman, Katerina, reminds Whip that their call time is at 9 am he leans over from the bed to the side table and proceeds to inhale a line of cocaine.
When Whip and Katerina get to the plane (it is by now abundantly clear that Katerina is one of the crew - a stewardess) Whip is more than bright eyed and bushy tailed; he has the slightly manic energy of someone who is both still drunk and high. What proceeds in terrifying, but spectacular cinema.
Taking off in bad weather, the plane experiences extreme turbulence, but Whip flies the plane through without losing his cool, though arousing the suspicions of his young and slightly nervous co-pilot. Just as the plane is nearing Atlanta, however, it goes into a sudden seemingly uncontrollable dive, losing altitude at a pace that could be fatal. I will not elaborate on what follows for words cannot always describe great cinema.
Suffice to say that Whip manages to land the plane after some eye popping manoeuvres saving almost everybody on board, but killing Katerina and another stewardess who had unbuckled themselves to assist the passengers. Whip is lauded as a hero, but subsequent investigations by the pilot's union and the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) uncover Whip's drinking and drug habits as well as various other indicators on board the wrecked plane that point to his intoxication.
It is Washington's nuanced and restrained performance that holds this film together. His character evolves from beginning to end with the viewer never really knowing if there will be any kind of happy ending for a man who has the makings of a hero, but is destroyed by his habits.
Many amazing actors support Washington in this film as it unfolds in a way that no one can really foretell. John Goodman plays Harling Mays, Whip's cocaine dealer, Don Cheadle plays Hugh Lang, the lawyer hired by the pilot's union to protect Whip, the luminous Kelly Reilly plays Nicole, the photographer turned cokehead with a heart of gold, and then there is the great Melissa Leo who plays a key role at the very end, a role without which the film would not have come together in the way it does.
Watch this film and marvel at the skills of writer John Gatins who has crafted a story that is both subtle and daring at the same time, one that will surprise you at every turn.