Airline anti-hero vehicle soars above expectations

There’s no questioning Academy Award winner Denzel Washington’s skill as a performer – he’s rarely less than formidable. However I must admit to having reservations: like Forest Whitaker and, in her later work, Nicole Kidman, Washington has a tendency to exhibit a sort of on-screen awareness. I suspect I can often detect his satisfaction at how technically perfect he considers his own performance. At times, there’s even something approaching smugness; a quiet enjoyment of his own brilliance. There’s even the occasional gesture or facial expression, seemingly too conscious, made just for the camera. It’s distracting at its best and at other times, nauseating.


In Flight, Washington plays Captain ‘Whip’ Whitaker, who after a boozy night with one of his attendants, enters the cockpit of a passenger plane drunk and high. Cocksure and self destructive, he puts his rookie co-pilot on edge with some unwelcome showboating during a bout of severe turbulence, and then falls into a sweaty, alcohol-induced sleep. He awakes with a start when the plane malfunctions during descent. Caught in a free-fall nosedive with everyone around him descending into hysteria, Whip keeps his cool. Acting on pure instinct, he’s able to regain control of the plane to facilitate a landing in a non-populated rural area. The impact renders him unconscious and he later wakes up in hospital. The manoeuvre is proclaimed to be impossible, a feat of miraculous proportions – and Whip is hailed a hero, having saved the lives of all but six of the 102 souls on board. A sneaky smoke in the hospital stairwell leads to a chance meeting with Nicole (Reilly), with whom an unlikely romance blossoms. The trouble starts when the airline, the plane manufacturers and the National Transportation Safety Board start looking for a scapegoat. A toxicology report shows a cocktail of drugs and alcohol in Whip’s bloodstream. Enter the consistently excellent Don Cheadle as his lawyer …


This is the first live-action film from Forrest Gump and Back to The Future helmer Robert Zemeckis in almost a decade. His preoccupation with motion capture animation for such works as The Polar Express and Beowulf has kept him away from traditional modes of filmmaking. Flight sees him make a blistering return to form. Like vintage Scorsese, the narrative rockets along im a similar fashion to the frenetic latter moments of Henry Hill’s cocaine-addled days in Goodfellas with a 70s soundtrack that further supports the tone. Zemeckis portrays the events with the assuredness of a master, but with a sense of urgency that would befit a director half his age.


Early on, particularly with a subplot involving Nicole’s pimp, landlord and porno pals, one gets the impression that the director is holidaying in someone else’s hell, by which I mean there’s a cartoon hyper-reality to the proceedings that doesn’t ring true. It doesn’t help either that the redemptive narrative is heavily illustrated with religious iconography. That aside, once we’re into the minutiae of Whip’s denial and paranoid, guilt-laden psyche, Zemeckis and Washington ably communicate a multitude of emotional complexities. When Whip returns home, having missed his ex-wife and son, and is treated as an unwelcome guest, it is both excruciating and genuinely moving.


Flight is a fine film that lives and dies by its central performance. Just as well then, that like a Daniel Day-Lewis or Philip Seymour Hoffman, Washington proves himself here to be one of those actors who can disappear into a role so much that once the film’s engine is turning, you see only the character. And perhaps Whip Whitaker’s narcissism works in Washington’s favour because while there are those occasions in Flight when the actor seems to be quietly enjoying his performance, in this case, he’s fully justified.


Flight (15)

Dir: Robert Zemeckis; US action/drama, 2012, 138 mins; Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle, Kelly Reilly, Bruce Greenwood, Brian Geraghty, John Goodman, Melissa Leo

Premiered February 28

Playing nationwide