There are really only two professions where having a moustache is a plus: doctor and pilot. Anytime you come into contact with those people, you’re relying on them being utterly professional and flawless in the execution of their jobs. The moustache only helps to complete the illusion of competence.
So it comes as a bit of a shock the first time you meet a doctor who’s actually an idiot. Just because you pass your exams, doesn’t mean you’re not a dum-dum. Likewise, does it ever really occur to you when you’re on Ryan Air that there’s a good reason why your pilot isn’t working for BA? Air travel’s continuing popularity is pretty much down to a normally skittish public that’s willing to ignore the possibility that pilots are flawed human beings — some more so than others.
In Flight, Denzel Washington is one such pilot. We learn early on that he’s a former naval aviator now spending the twilight of his career flying short haul for a small commuter airline. In the first scene he wakes up in a hotel room strewn with empty bottles. Still drunk and nursing a hangover, he takes a bump of cocaine to even himself out. This is not behaviour you want from the guy flying your plane. But when Washington becomes the celebrated hero of an unbelievable crash landing, his turbulent life goes into tailspin.
The crash sequence is one of the most thrilling scenes of the year that will unsettle even the most seasoned air traveller. Faced with a loss of vertical control, Washington makes the seemingly insane decision to invert the plane to stop its descent. Director Robert Zemeckis (who returns to live action film after a decade of motion-capture animations) shoots the incident with such energy and peril that the rest of the film feels incredibly languorous in comparison.
After all, this really isn’t a movie about a hero or a crash – it’s about a man coming to terms with addiction. After he’s recovered from wreckage of the plane, Washington is taken to a hospital where he befriends upon a beautiful young woman (Kelly Reilly) who’s been admitted after a near-fatal heroin overdose. Their relationship develops in a way that’s neither romantic, nor entirely platonic. As a recovering addict, Reilly’s in a unique position to see the situation Washington’s in. Blood tests taken from Washington after the crash reveal the fact that he was hammered during the entire thing. If he’s proven guilty, he would lose his licence and be facing some serious prison time. So instead of facing his challenge head on, he hides himself from the media, his lawyer (Don Cheadle) and federal investigators. The logic is that if he ignores his problems, they would eventually go away
As a serious film about coming to terms with addiction, Flight is a well-handled from all sides (if perhaps a little slight). Washington thoroughly deserves his Oscar nomination for playing his character with the right balance of vulnerability and self-delusion as he struggles for control. There are hints at his life before the crash, including a fractured relationship with his ex-wife and estranged son. If there’s one thing that the Zemeckis and screenwriter John Gatins do very well here, it’s allowing the audience to learn about Washington’s character through the reactions of the people who know him best.
The final few scenes have their fair share of clichés where clumsy attempts are made to create a neat ending, but it’s not enough to undo the good work that permeates the rest of the film. If anything, the biggest surprise of the film is Zemeckis’ direction. Now in his fourth decade of making movies, he’s still going strong when many of his contemporaries have fizzled out.
You might be disappointed that this isn’t the thriller that the trailer makes it out to be, but if you were to go in without any prior assumptions, you’re likely to find one of the more entertaining films about crippling alcoholism.
Flight is in cinemas 1st February