Flight is not always an easy movie to watch. To start with, if you have just a teensy little bit of flying phobia, prepare to sit through a most harrowing and horrifying plane crash. Denzel Washington, playing pilot Whip Whitaker (one of the greatest character names in some time, don’t you think?), must control a commercial airliner in mechanical failure and get it to the ground as safely as possible under impossible conditions. Whip stays cool and collected while everyone around him — from flight attendants to co-pilot to passengers — quite rightly falls apart, and he manages to pull off a mind-boggling feat of flying. Of course, the fact that we know that he did these heroic actions while drunk and high out of his mind makes things a lot more complicated.
And it’s from here that things get tough as they always do when watching brutally honest movies about people struggling with addiction. Hollywood has a long history of terrific actors doing some of their best work with this subject: Think Jack Lemmon in 1962’s Days of Wine and Roses; the blood-curdling bitterness of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in 1966’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; Paul Newman in 1982’s The Verdict; and in the same year, the always amazing Peter O’Toole playing a pickled rake in My Favorite Year. There’s Mickey Rourke in 1987’s Barfly; Meg Ryan in 1994’s When a Man Loves a Woman (which, thanks to the Oxygen network, I think I can recite line by line); the Oscar-winning Nicholas Cage in 1995’s Leaving Las Vegas; and of course we can’t forget 2003’s Bad Santa.
Denzel Washington joins this esteemed list. As EW’s Lisa Schwarzbaum notes in her review: “Fiercely alive yet never showy about playing drunk, Washington inhabits the uncomfortable skin of Whip Whitaker with a kind of angry majesty.” And indeed, part of what makes Flight so effective is that every time Whip resolves to stop drinking, you totally believe him… right until he starts drinking again. Director Robert Zemeckis does an excellent job showing (without overly-telling) how little will power has to do with kicking booze, and if you’re like me, you’ll be thinking about what fate you wanted to befall Whip Whitaker long after you’ve left the theater.