Nominated for two Academy Awards and marking a return to live-action filmmaking for director Robert Zemeckis, alcohol addiction drama Flight (2012) – on paper, at least – has a great deal going for it. Denzel Washington commands the eye (and the skies) as troubled pilot Whip Whitaker, who must battle against both an impending tribunal and his own personal demons after being accused of intoxication on duty following a commercial airline disaster. Sadly, Washington’s rousing central performance is where the buck stops, with Zemeckis unable to lift this Oscar-baiting melodrama above the rest of the chasing pack.
Washington’s Whitaker becomes an overnight media messiah after the charismatic airline pilot miraculously crash-lands his plane in the aftermath of, what we presume, was a mid-air equipment malfunction. Somehow managing to save the lives of nearly every passenger on board (tragically, two stewardesses are killed during the chaos), our hero apparent awakens in hospital with the eyes of the world placed firmly upon him. However, as more is learnt about the events leading up to the incident, questions begin to be asked of Whitaker’s state of mind in the preceding hours, with a crucial toxicology report further muddying the water. Sobriety, it transpires, is Whip’s only chance of salvation.
Beginning with a spectacular, blood-pumping sequence in which Whitaker first rolls his flailing aircraft before setting ‘her’ down in a nearby field, Flight threatens to become the tight, tense legal procedural that it perhaps should have been, before bailing into a rather less satisfying man vs. demons saga – complete with smatterings of ripe sentimentality (what did you expect from the director of Forrest Gump?). Joined in his quest for teetotalism by heroin user Nicole (Kelly Reilly), Whitaker withdraws to his father’s rural farm, where he stews over his past transgressions and non-existent relationship with an estranged wife and son. With easy access to alcohol once more, Whip’s destructive cycle predictably restarts.
Though several well-orchestrated scenes cling to the mind, Zemeckis’ return to the land of the living feels all too hollow, lacking the verve and panache of his earliest outings. Washington aside, there’s precious little to hang your hat on here, with every possible cliché and trope of the Academy-friendly addiction drama rolled out in front of you, from needles in arms to destructive, Gimme Shelter-accompanied descents into wanton excess. A surprisingly weak and off-colour supporting cast further hamper one’s engagement, with Reilly’s sympathetic junkie discarded in the final third, Brian Geraghty’s born again co-pilot misjudged (at best) and Don Cheadle’s defence lawyer snide in the extreme. Worst of all, however, is John Goodman as Whitaker’s friend/coke dealer Harling, who somehow manages to undo the film’s entire didactic in several disastrous scenes.
No matter how many boxes Zemeckis’ boozy drama may tick, Flight never truly convinces as either a straightforward popcorn movie or a seriously-minded addiction drama, the scattergun approach used more likely to alienate and repel potential audiences than draw them in. Though Washington’s on-screen presence and unwavering conviction do manage to steer the film out of complete free-fall on several occasions, this is one poorly-executed Oscar-baiter that deserves to be jettisoned at the earliest possible opportunity.