"Flight's" treatment of substance abuse is so bang on I was surprised to learn it is a fictional tale. According to the Los Angeles Times, "John Gatins ('Flight's' scribe) has an acknowledged history of difficulty with alcoholism." His passion for sharing this hard-won knowledge is demonstrated by the decade he spent championing this script.
To get the film made, both director Robert Zemeckis and star Denzel Washington, agreed to forgo their usual fees. That brought the budget to a rather modest $31 million and brought Paramount Studios onboard. Though dramas are generally a tough sell, the film's opening weekend box office receipts were a respectable $25 million.
Washington's thoughtful performance as Whip Whitaker, an alcoholic commercial airline pilot, strikes the right balance between guilt, denial and neediness. He is helped by a script that lets us learn organically about his character. Having lost his family due to boozing, middle-aged Whip spends his off-duty time partying with a pretty flight attendant.
As we hear Whip arguing with his ex-wife about the extra money she wants for their teenage son (who avoids all contact with Whip), we discover that he has alienated his family over the course of many years. In order to ready himself for flight post binging, Whip straightens himself up by snorting lines of coke previously laid out for the purpose. He performs this sequence with the ease of a man who has done it many times before.
As he boards the plane, flight attendants who know him well appear to be calm and content about flying with Whip, a testament to his ability as a pilot. We are shown his understanding of a commercial jet when he uses unorthodox methods to find a patch of smooth air in exceedingly bumpy weather.
Finally, we witness the ease with which Whip speaks to a cabin full of passengers, mike in one hand while pouring vodka into orange juice using the hand that is obscured from both the passengers and crew by the galley wall. The subtleties of the script show us that Whip's problems are nothing new, and that he knows precisely how to reach his not-too-high, not-too-low, Goldilocks zone.
It's important that we know this, since something goes terribly wrong during the flight. Zemeckis creates a harrowing 20 minutes, but what sticks with us is the talent, calm and experience Whip calls upon to land his broken plane, saving 96 of the 102 lives onboard.
Then everything changes because the accident necessitates an FAA investigation. Whip is surrounded by those who could help or hurt him. While he lies in the hospital recovering from minor injuries, Whip gets a visit from old buddy Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood, whose detached attitude serves the character), now a pilots union rep who cautions, "death demands the assigning of responsibility." Don Cheadle appears as the union attorney who knows how to dance around his client's dirty blood levels, and John Goodman provides comic relief as a doctor fix-it of sorts, a coke dealer responsible for regularly medicating Whip out of oblivion. Kelly Reilly plays a heroin addict who happens into Whip's life, after receiving and hearing her own wake-up call.
There are lines that shouldn't be crossed when making a movie about an utterly flawed protagonist. First, avoid sentimentalizing a harsh reality and, second, prevent the story from becoming preachy. "Flight" momentarily slips up during its final scene, but then again, we can all use an extra measure of courage when doing what's right also means doing what's really tough.