Philadelphia Film Festival Review: ‘Flight’ Is A Gripping Character Study About the Power of Addiction

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You can’t get mad at movie studios for how they chose to market their movies. Earlier this year, Joe Carnahan’s film The Grey was marketed as a kick-ass man vs. nature survival action film when, in reality, it was a sobering film about a man in an existential crisis. It’s their job to maximize the profitability of a film, and you can’t really blame them for selling it as they do. With all that said, Flight isn’t a film about a plane crash. Despite what Flight was marketed as, the film is about the endeavor of one man confronting who he really is. Flight is a character study about a man is consumed by addiction, and his struggles dealing with the realization.

Denzel Washington plays Whip Whitaker, a hard drinking man who, after a night of heavy drinking and just a *little* cocaine in the morning gets up, gets dress, and goes to his job as a commercial airplane pilot. Despite feeling the obvious ill effects of his evening, he and his co-pilot get the plane in the air. But that’s where the trouble begins. A series of failures cause the plane to fall into a descent and the plane crashes.

The majority of Flight takes place after the crash.  But the drama depicted in trailers of a NTSB meeting is mostly third act stuff. The bulk of this film is about Whip’s struggle with his addiction. It’s quite clear that Whip was a wreck long before the crash. When the pilot’s union hires a lawyer, Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle), to help deal with any possible legal issues, what becomes Hugh realizes that Whip’s lifestyle is his big obstacle. Simple requests made by Hugh are met with derision and neglect because Whip can’t control himself. The irony of the film is that Whip, as a commercial airplane pilot, should be ALL about control.

Whip’s story is contrasted by a fellow addict, Nicole (Kelly Reilly), whom Whip meets in the hospital after the crash. The once promising photographer has her heroin addiction causing her to turn to the prospect of pornography to make extra money. The story of the two of them is that two people in different places of addiction. Nicole is an addict who has relapsed but is trying to escape the burden that haunts her. Whip is a person who sees the functionality of his everyday life and therefore denies his problem. Whip’s addiction isn’t a problem in his mind even though he is divorced and his son disdains him; he manages to save a bunch of lives and thwart a major catastrophe while drunk and high on cocaine…so how could be an addict?

There isn’t much else to Flight. There is solid supporting work by Cheadle as a lawyer who does want to help despite the fact that he dislikes Whip. Bruce Greenwood is very good as Whip’s conflicted friend Charlie. Charlie is forced to tow the line as both Whip’s oldest friend and as a man trying to protect the Airline. Reilly’s role as Nicole plays as good counter to Denzel’s Whip, but also is where some of the script’s biggest problems occur. She offers the idea that though Whip’s problems are far gone, they aren’t insurmountable. But then why des her character makes a decision that only will lead Whip to further down his dark path?

Flight is a film about the facade people create to get through everyday life. We the audience witness the distressing nature of Whip’s condition, but the passengers who are boarding the plane see a pilot preparing to do his job. It is often talked about how addiction turns honest man into masters of deception, not by choice but by necessity. But Flight is only as good a film as you think Denzel Washington’s lead performance of a broken man is. At 138 minutes, the mass of the film is spent with Denzel Washington in a room by himself coming to grips with who he is and the life he leads. But if you believe Denzel and associate with his plight, then this film is for you.