Robert Zemeckis hasn’t directed a live-action movie since “Cast Away,” so how perfect that 12 years later he’s at the helm of “Flight” whose centerpiece is a harrowing 20-minute airplane crash sequence. Nothing tops the FedEx flight disaster in the 2000 Tom Hanks vehicle, but this certainly comes close in its heart-pounding detail and claustrophobic point-of-view placing us right in the cockpit. After escaping stormy weather and turbulence, the plane suffers a mechanical failure sending it into an irreversible nose dive. The fear evoked in the lead flight attendant (Tamara Tunie) and young co-pilot (Brian Geraghty) is a contrast to the calm, level-headed demeanor of pilot Whip Whitacker (Denzel Washington) who rolls the aircraft upside-down to maintain its altitude in a gut-instinct decision.
Hours prior to this very flight, we see Whip hungover in a hotel room. Beer and liquor bottles scatter the room, and he fights on the phone with his ex-wife while a naked woman dresses beside the bed. To jolt himself back to life from his grogginess, he sniffs two lines of cocaine and throws on his dark aviator sunglasses to portray a man completely in control. It’s a facade, though, as Whip is a man who’s completely lost control, and playing this tortured soul gives Denzel Washington his most hypnotic and powerful dramatic performance in years. And Zemeckis, who recently turned his efforts exclusively toward stop-motion animation (“Beowulf,” “The Polar Express”), hasn’t lost the ability to draw performances from great actors.
Whip glides the plane with 102 passengers on board into a crash-landing in a vacant field holding nothing but a small church. Only six die in the crash, and to those who don’t know Whip personally, he’s hailed as a hero. No other pilot could’ve landed the plane the way he did, and crash simulators following the event prove this. The fact remains, however, that Whip was intoxicated. An investigation from a federal organization goes underway with Whip under close scrutiny. The film, against expectation, is smart in not devolving into mere procedural. Instead, it continues as a brooding and intense character study with phenomenal supporting turns to accompany.
Retreating to seclusion at his grandfather’s farm, Whip dumps all remaining alcohol in his possession. He realizes the plane crash was his wake-up call; his opportunity to turn his life around. When his union representative (Bruce Greenwood) and lawyer (Don Cheadle) turn up, however, with the bad news of Whip’s toxicology report, whether Whip can stay above the influence of his past behavior or continue his downward spiral comes into question. During his stay in the hospital, Whip meets a drug-addicted woman named Nicole (Kelly Reilly); just when you think it’ll be him who saves her, she attends AA on her own, and her disappointment in Whip trumps her ability to help him.
And if John Goodman is to be nominated this year, it should be for his role here (over “Argo”) as Whip’s drug guru, Harling Mays, who channels the Dude from “The Big Lebowski.” He arrives at a crucial moment when Whip is held overnight in a hotel room before the morning of his hearing. In only two scenes, he steals the show injecting the movie with dark humor. Likewise, Melissa Leo commands the screen during another pivotal single scene. A bold claim can be made for ensemble of the year here.
“Flight” is about a man battling his inner demons, and the screenplay from “Real Steel” scribe John Gatins doesn’t tell us how to view, or judge, Whip. The film nears perfection, but then backs off at the last minute. It gives Whip the easy option, the nicely wrapped epilogue. Such tumultuous proceedings should’ve been left more open-ended, not so easily solvable; give Denzel Washington’s acting more credit. His impending Oscar nomination proves it.