We had high hopes for Flight, the new film about an alcoholic pilot who is both heroic and horrible. With such a complex character, skillfully played by Denzel Washington, Flight might have created a nuanced portrait of addiction. Unfortunately, after a gripping opening, the film nosedives into sentimentality and melodrama.
At the start, we see Washington’s character Whip Whitaker leading a double life. He wakes up groggy in a hotel room after his latest drunken romp. He smokes a cigarette and does a couple lines of coke to thwart his hangover. When we cut to the next scene, he’s cool and confident, settling into a plane’s cockpit in his aviator glasses and pilot’s uniform. He successfully steers the plane through heavy turbulence, then downs a screwdriver made with three tiny bottles of vodka. It’s a compelling portrayal of an extremely high-functioning alcoholic.
What happens next is one of the most terrifying crash scenes we have ever seen. After a mechanical malfunction, the plane begins a tailspin. And somehow—we had to suspend our disbelief here—Whip’s drug- and alcohol-induced recklessness gives him the chutzpah to fly the airliner upside down and eventually land it in an open field. Nearly every passenger survives. “Nobody could have landed that plane like I did,” Whip later says. And indeed, the feat seems nearly impossible.
Unfortunately, the rest of the film fails to live up to its captivating beginning. Whip’s intoxicated state is revealed after the crash—and he faces serious criminal charges. But even with everything on the line, he can’t sober up and remains in deep denial of his alcoholism. The problem is that Whip becomes something of a mouthpiece for poorly phrased platitudes like “I CHOOSE to drink!” at his lowest point, and “I’m FREE!” when he finally kicks the bottle. With such stale dialogue, it’s hard to walk away with anything more than a clichéd image of substance abuse.
The plot builds up to the moment when (spoiler alert!) Whip, unable to tell another lie, at last admits he has a problem. To the filmmaker’s credit, Flight avoids the stereotypical happy ending; by the end of the movie, Whip is behind bars, and he may never fly again. Still, he tells a group of fellow inmates, he’s grateful for his hard-won sobriety. This is meant to be a powerful moment, yet we have no idea how Whip got from point A to point B. His entire recovery process is completely glossed over. Did he go through withdrawal? Did he struggle in his counseling sessions? Did he relapse before finding his way? These questions are left unanswered, and consequently, Whip’s repentant speech comes off as more sappy than serious.
Recovery seems more true-to-life in the character of Nicole, the sad, beautiful heroin addict whom Whip takes in. But even she plays into the movie’s overall melodrama—which was so consistent and grating that we were eager for any moment of relief, even in the form of a clownish drug dealer played brilliantly by John Goodman. Because in reality, recovery isn’t merely melodrama, and it’s anything but a string of cheesy lines plucked from an AA pamphlet. It’s a process unique to each individual, one that doesn’t often provide neat sound bites. Perhaps if Whip sounded less scripted, we’d be more apt to believe him. Unfortunately, as The Globe and Mail’s Rick Groen put it, “Flight soars when it crashes and crashes when it soars.”
Kate Schmier, Emma Edelman, and Alisa Harris
Blog Editors, Phoenix House