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The classic definition of an ‘A List’ movie star is one who can open a film on the merit of their own popularity. By this the fiscally inclined studio executives are certain that the inclusion of this single person will be sufficient to compel the people to lineup money in hand. From the point of view of the cinematic aficionado the best we can hope for is the producers included the talents of a gifted screenwriter and director to ensure the resultant film will be of superior quality to be of interest. My personal experience leans towards a randomized distribution of how good the star driven movie actually turns out. One of the few actors that can have this effect on my viewing habits is Denzel Washington. I’ve been impressed with his unmistakably powerful screen presence and intrinsic talent since I first encountered his work on the television hospital drama, ‘St. Elsewhere’. Since then I have not come across a single film that featured him that was not emotionally gripping and an example of how a movie be constructed. Because of this track record I was intrigued by a movie featuring this actor, ‘Flight’. Fundamentally it is a ‘ripped from the head lines’ story about a substance abusing air liner pilot who winds up in a precarious, dangerous set of circumstances. Under normal circumstances a movie like this might be a small blip on my movie radar but Washington had a knack for this type of film that made me want to see it. Now that I have, I am extremely glad I did.

Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is a pilot for a major airline. Usually this would be the defining aspect of what drives his personality but there is an overriding factor that serves as the foundation of Whip’s life; he is an addict. Whitaker is hooked on cocaine and alcohol, so much so that he has built up a tolerance for these substances that what barely gets him off would kill most others. At the starting point of the film Whip is rapidly approaching the rock bottom that addicts inevitably hit. His wife has divorced him, his teen age son despises him and even his best friend and dealer, Harling Mays (John Goodman), is pretty much fed up with his reckless excesses. He has a glimmer of hope he clings on to that he will marry his girlfriend, Katerina (Nadine Velazquez), a flight attendant, and life will once again be on track. Considering she is also an addict this seems doubtful. There is a dichotomy created between Katerina and a recovering addict, Nicole (Kelly Reilly), who holds the potential as a positive influence on him unless he ruins that relationship in the same fashion as he has destroyed nearly everything in his life.

Considering the setup, which thankfully is spread out efficiently in the expository portions of the story, you might expect that Whip’s substance abuse issues would be the direct cause of a tragedy. That would be how the plot threads would progress in a mundane film but this movie is significantly better constructed than that. This indication is reinforced when we Whip and Katrina in a hotel room after a rather wild night of sex and drugs. Whip relies on a couple of hits of coke as a wake up before boarding his next flight; the poster figure of dangerous an irresponsible behavior. Copilot Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty) is at the controls while Whip sneaks off to mix a screw driver and settle in for an inflight snooze. His sleep is suddenly disrupted on the approach for landing when a series of catastrophic equipment failures take the engines and the pitch controls off line. Whip somehow manages to pull out of the dive by rolling the plane upside down, regaining control to bring the craft to a fairly intact landing, albeit a rough one. The representative of the pilot’s association and old friend Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood) informs Whip he is a hero saving all but six of the souls on board. Among the dead is Katrina and Evans is in a coma. He sneaks off for a smoke where he meets Nicole who is in the hospital subsequent to an overdose which soon leads to a romantic relationship. Happiness will continue to elude Whip as the official investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board discloses his impaired state and involvement in the circumstances leading to the crash. Whip has to face serious legal problems as a result.

As mentioned this film might have proceeded in the typical Hollywood fashion with Washington walking into the sunrise of a new day a changed man. ‘Flight’ is most assuredly not that movie. What might have been another hackneyed action flick is transformed by its filmmaker, Robert Zemeckis, into a psychological exploration of addiction. Zemeckis might be most associated with lighter offerings including a television horror anthology, ‘Tales from the Crypt’ and the iconic time travel franchise, the ‘Back to the Future’ trilogy, with this movie he steps up as a filmmaker worthy of Oscar consideration. With two time Academy Award winner Denzel Washington leading the cast both men have a chance to find this film hailed as a cinematic triumph. It did get Washington another Oscar nomination. Also nominated was the screen writer, John Gatins for a script that exemplifies a creative approach to a headline inspired story. So many writers and directors would have taken the predicable road, one of loss followed by transformation, recovery and restitution. This movie takes the audience on another journey, a far more realistic one where the repercussions are not neatly packaged just before the closing credits. The movie contains a story that is darkly real were consequences persist long after remorse is achieved. In this manner ‘Flight’ is expertly streamlined concentrating its emotional intensity of addiction and penalties that ensure from its grasp. Addiction might be recognized as a disease in the current DSM guide to mental afflictions but like much such disorder the effects range beyond the patient frequently with dire effects on innocent bystanders. Whip’s need for momentary hedonistic indulgences cost more than his relationships and career. It resulted in the loss of life and in these cases there is no happy Hollywood ending found here; just a glimpse into the that addiction plunges its victims.

Origins Of Flight
The Making Of Flight
Anatomy Of A Plane Crash
Q&A Highlights
Digital Copy Included

Posted 03/14/2013

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