Film Review: Flight

One of the strongest adult dramas to come out of Hollywood in a long time.

On paper, Flight’s course might look challenging in today’s theatrical space, especially as it flies above the lucrative young, demographically driven action market and deals head-on with such themes as alcoholism, drug addiction and sexual promiscuity. There’s that R rating and a minority cast up front and bland Atlanta locations that aren’t Istanbul. But this seamless package of emotionally packed moments depicting both relatable human dilemmas and foibles and remarkable special-effects sequences of a doomed jet entertains and engages to the max.

The story has Southeast regional passenger jet pilot Whip Whitaker doing his usual warm-up the night before his flight by having hot sex with attractive stewardess Katerina (Nadine Velazquez), the colleague who also shares but might not match Whip’s appetite for drinking and drugs. Near-drunk the next morning, Whip gets on his plane, downs a few single vodka shots for good measure and takes his place in the cockpit next to his younger, goody-goody co-pilot Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty), a reborn straight-arrow who, growing uncomfortable, detects signs of the liquor-soaked pilot in charge next to him.

Following Whip’s skillful handling of a takeoff in severe storm turbulence, all appears well. But worse follows when the plane suffers catastrophic failure after the stabilizing elevator malfunctions and altitude is lost. Even in these far more extreme circumstances, Whip manages a startling feat when he pilots the plane upside-down so it will maintain altitude and achieves a crash landing that involves the deaths of only six of the 102 on board.

At first, the hospitalized Whip is a hero, but soon his excesses and weaknesses catch up with him, beginning with the empty vodka singles on board traced to him. His buddy and pilots union rep Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood) tactfully eases Whip into the case building around him and gets ace lawyer Hugo Lang (Don Cheadle) to help the pilot. Meanwhile, Whip begins a friendship and maybe romance with Nicole (wonderful British actress Kelly Reilly), a lost-soul drug addict who had been brought to the hospital following an overdose. But the National Transportation Safety Board closes in and an inquiry looms that promises a shootout between Whip and the NTSB’s interrogating lawyer, Ellen Block (Oscar winner Melissa Leo).

Other plot threads have Whip needing positive but lying witness testimony from Margaret Thomason (Tamara Tunie), another stewardess he’s friendly with, and trying to reconnect with the family that has disowned him. Also hanging around amusingly but toxically is Whip’s good-old-boy drug dealer pal Harling Mays (John Goodman), ever ready with the goods.

A long shot for Oscar recognition (but certainly not for more Hollywood attention) is James Badge Dale in a cameo as a resigned, terminally ill hospital patient who briefly befriends Whip and Nicole. Badge Dale, who so impressed in Shame, is as indelible and surprising here as Mickey Rourke was in his Body Heat bit.

The film’s coup is to organically mesh terrifying disaster film sequences into a narrative that above all deals effectively with themes of denial, addiction and redemption. The achievement is much the result of Zemeckis’ direction, John Gatins’ superb script, the many outstanding performances and the special and visual effects that might have fearful flyers upping their anxiety and braver souls giving thought to their next flights.