Eight Miles High

Denzel is a hero pilot and hopeless drunk in Flight

Twelve years have elapsed since Robert Zemeckis last directed a live-action movie (Cast Away). His return vehicle is Flight, a conventional but engrossing drama about a commercial airline pilot whose heroism in saving a nose-diving plane is tainted by his alcoholism and drug addiction.

The story is based loosely on the case of Robert Piché, a Canadian pilot who in 2001 safely landed a failing jetliner, only to have his sketchy drug-smuggling past come to light. Flight's pilot is Whip Whitaker, played by Denzel Washington. Whitaker is, by all accounts, a great pilot. He's also a reckless alcoholic who does a few lines of coke to get "straight" enough to do his job. We first encounter Whitaker awakening in a hotel, bleary, empty bottles on the nightstand, a gorgeous flight attendant in his bed.

As he takes the controls for a flight from Orlando to Atlanta, it's obvious Whitaker is hung over, at one point even nodding off mid-flight. He represents a familiar paradox, the competent drunk. He coolly navigates the plane and its petrified passengers through the pounding turbulence of a rainstorm. At the same time, he's gleefully brazen in his drinking, pouring three miniature vodka bottles into a pitcher of O.J. and guzzling it onboard.

All this is prelude to the movie's centerpiece, a heart-thumping sequence in which the plane, its engines failing, heads into a nosedive. Zemeckis' special-effects mastery is evident in the depiction of the airplane churning, rocking, flinging passengers and crew hither and yon, flying upside down to avert the nosedive (requiring suspension not only of the plane but also of viewer disbelief).

Despite his intoxication, Whitaker is calmly in command, landing the crippled plane and its traumatized passengers in an empty field, but not before shearing off a church steeple and terrifying a flock of white-robed Pentecostal churchmen.

Whitaker, hospitalized with injuries, is hailed as a hero for saving 98 of the 106 people onboard, but an NTSB investigation reveals that he was intoxicated. As the pilots' union and a sharp lawyer (Don Cheadle) labor to avert his prosecution for manslaughter, Whitaker descends into a lonely spiral of denial and self-destruction.

A parallel story focuses on Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a heroin addict struggling to stay clean. She crosses paths with Whitaker, and they become fellow travelers in battling their demons. Although it's determined that Whitaker's drunkenness didn't cause the accident, the script explores his moral culpability. Several allusions are made to God; was the accident an "act of God" (the lawyer's defense), or part of a divine plan (the pious co-pilot's belief) to get Whitaker straight?

There's much to savor in this traditionally made film, particularly the arresting performances by Denzel, Reilly, and, in two raucous scenes that seem ported over from a zestier movie, John Goodman as Whitaker's wild-man drug dealer. The screenplay, by erstwhile actor John Gatins, traverses the expected Lost Weekend clichés (bottles poured down the sink, then replaced; an estranged wife and resentful son; an AA meeting attended under protest). It also applies graceful, sympathetic shading to the characters. Unfortunately, the film's excessive length stretches the story beyond its dramatic capacity; it's a rather arduous journey between the airplane disaster and the ultimate resolution of Whitaker's fate.

— Pamela Zoslov

Like this story?
SCENE Supporters make it possible to tell the Cleveland stories you won’t find elsewhere.
Become a supporter today.
Scroll to read more Movie Reviews & Stories articles

Join Cleveland Scene Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.