‘Flight’ movie review: Denzel Washington soars in airline legal thriller

A terrific piece of blockbuster entertainment, Robert Zemeckis’ Flight effortlessly mixes genres and styles in its story of an alcohol and drug-addicted airline pilot who nevertheless achieves a moment of great heroism while under the influence. It’s a complex scenario where the lines between right and wrong are blurred, and to its credit, the film never takes the easy way out. 

Much of the success of Flight rests with its central character, Whip Whitaker. We’ve seen a lot of drunks in movies, and a lot of addicts. We know what to do with them. But few of them are airline pilots, and few can be considered heroes. Played by Denzel Washington in an Oscar-nominated performance, we end up rooting for Whip under the unlikeliest of circumstances.

The central incident in Flight was (loosely) inspired by the fate of Alaska Airlines Flight 261 in 2000: after a loss of pitch following mechanical failure, pilots attempted to stabilize the plane by flying it upside down. This didn’t work; the plane went down over the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California, resulting in the deaths of all 88 passengers and crew on board.

Flight dramatizes the incident in one of the most effective scenes of aircraft terror ever put to film: following mechanical failure during a bout of rough turbulence, the aircraft piloted by Whitaker goes into a nosedive. To stabilize, he turns it upside down before leveling off and crash landing in a field. 

Watching severe turbulence – something most anyone who has flown on a plane can relate to – is bad enough. Watching the cabin spin upside down, bodies thrown around like ragdolls, seeing this giant aircraft flying through the air in a manner we know it shouldn’t – well, it’s downright terrifying. This is one film you won’t catch on in-flight entertainment. 

Six people die in the incident, but Whip is a hero. He’s the only man who could have saved the flight; simulations conducted after the crash back up this assessment. Only problem: he was drunk – and high – while he did it. 

Now it gets interesting. Whip’s union rep (Bruce Greenwood) wants to get him off. The company lawyer (Don Cheadle) manipulates findings in order to get him off. Do we want him to get off? Considering the alternative – finding him responsible for the six deaths, meaning he’s looking at a great deal of prison time – the answer isn’t so clear. 

Zemeckis knows this, and mercilessly toys with our emotions during a climactic sequence that leads up to a riveting courtroom scene, culminating in a single shot of Washington’s face that rivals the upside-down aircraft as the most powerful image in the film. Just when you think Flight is about to go off the rails, the director rights the ship as if he had control the whole time.

One aspect of the film really didn’t add up, however: this is a long(ish) film at 138 minutes, and we spend a great deal of time early on with another addict, played by Kelly Reilly. But her character disappears from the second half of the movie (once she’s out of Whip’s life), leading me to wonder why the film took the time to develop her character at the beginning.

Flight is the first live-action film from Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump) since What Lies Beneath in 2000, and showcases a director at the very top of his game. It’s complex material presented as popcorn entertainment, and it works perfectly at that level.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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