Spirit in the Sky

(USA, 138 min.)
Dir. Robert Zemeckis, Writ. John Gatins
Starring: Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, Bruce Greenwood, Don Cheadle, John Goodman, Tamara Tunie, Nadine Velazquez, Melissa Leo, Brian Geraghty.
And we have lift-off! Well, sort of. Flight is a lift-off to a Best Actor campaign for Denzel Washington, but the film itself struggles to keep itself afloat. Thanks primarily to Washington’s performance, Flight gives a strong look at the personal and collective tolls of alcoholism; however, the script by John Gatins (whose most recent screenwriting credits includes the surprisingly good ‘boxing-robots movie’ Real Steel) is unwieldy, unfocused, and unsuccessful in its attempt to take a blockbuster premise and deliver a religious parable. In short, Flight is essentially a big-budget version Smashed, but it is twice as long, half as good, and everyone other secondary character randomly shouts “Praise Jesus!”

Washington gives one of his better turns of late as Whip Whitaker, a reckless airline pilot who loves to fly—both in the air and in the hotel room. Although the previews for Flight seem to advertise a candy-coated drama for the Cheap Tuesday crowd, the film puts Whip’s personal demons front and centre. Moviegoers expecting breezy lightness will be surprised to see Denzel wake up in bed with a naked woman, drop enough f-bombs to ensure an R-rating (if the full frontal nudity didn’t already do that), and snort a line of coke all within the opening minutes. Like Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) in Smashed, Whip prepares for work by continuing the bender that began the night before. Whip heads to work with bloodshot eyes, which are reddened both from sleepiness and from too much cocaine.

Whereas Kate’s addiction erupts in a pool of vomit before her kindergarteners, Whip’s battle with booze catches him in a nosedive. He needs to quit drinking, and the tolls of this pilot's alcoholism are serious. While flying en route to Atlanta, Whip’s plane hits some major turbulence and loses control. Whip saves the plane with an act of brave piloting: he inverts the plane and glides upside-down before grounding it in a controlled crash. It could be intuition, or it could be impaired judgement, but Whip’s actions save the majority of the passengers onboard.

The first act of Flight is riveting, smartly-paced cinema. Gatins and Zemeckis cut right to the substance of the film—Whip’s substance abuse—and show the anti-hero grappling with his personal demons as he tries to take control of the situation at hand. Washington remains calm, cool, and collected as the plane goes down, so Flight begins as a strong character study set amidst an awesomely staged action sequence. Unfortunately, though, the film dives into a tailspin following the accident and it never recovers.
Flight continues with the ensuing investigation into the crash. Prompted by some queries by Whip’s lawyer, Hugh (Don Cheadle), Flight opens a case that asks the audience whether Whip’s intoxication is relevant to the crash. Evidence shows that a technical malfunction, not impaired driving, caused the accident, so the fact that Whip was blind drunk might be irrelevant. Or is it?

Flight stumbles with this question by suggesting that the plane crash was actually an act of divine intervention. Hugh and others propose that the hand of God tipped the airplane. Hugh actually has “act of God” listed as a potential cause to be debated in the upcoming hearing, which is one moment in which Flight lets its credibility drop without a parachute. The accident, then, was a call for Whip to sober up, since it forces him to confront his vices and see the lives into which his battle with the bottle spills over. The religious subtext of Flight is heavy-handed and half-baked. A roster of supporting characters bluntly interject God’s will into their stories about the flight, and Flight hammers in the celestial overtone by placing the scene of the accident at a church. The religious allegory offers little more than a convenient escape route from actively engaging with Whip’s problems. The divine presence is unnecessary for noting Whip’s flaws, as Flight includes some nice touches throughout, such as the use of a Muzak rendition of The Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends” after Whip does a few lines of coke with his friend Harling (a fun John Goodman) before an important hearing. The subtext also feels out of place, since Flight begins by signalling its R-ratedness so flagrantly, but then seems hell-bent on atonement as it plods along.
Flight unravels in its messy second act thanks to a myriad of aborted subplots that touch upon Whip’s addiction and the potential God-factor, but never come together. Flight mostly avoids heavy drama and instead substitutes it with clean little speeches. Especially bizarre is Whip’s contrived relationship with a fellow addict named Nicole (Kelly Reilly). Nicole overdoses the same day as Whip’s crash and they meet in the hospital. Nicole then moves out to Whip’s farm and gets sober while Whip falls further into his addiction. The relationship between Whip and Nicole echoes the volatile marriage of Kate to Charlie in Smashed and shows the difficulty of escaping an addiction when one’s closest supports are actually enablers. However, Nicole simply exits the film so that Flight can move on to the churchy bits.

The religious angle is equally haphazard. Among the more interesting parties of the film is Whip’s head flight attendant, Margaret (Tamara Tunie), who first injects some spirituality by inviting Whip to her prayer group before their fateful accident. Margaret survives the crash, but she is appalled at the prospect of having to commit the sin of covering-up Whip’s addictions in order to save the man who saved her. Like Nicole, though, Margaret quickly disappears from the film when it seems like her character is called upon to do something substantial. It’s a shame that Flight makes inadequate use of Nicole and Margaret, since the strong work by Reilly and Tunie might have furthered Washington’s effort to make the film soar.

The script might best have been used to make 138 origami vomit bags, but the talented (and diverse) cast manages to fold it into a (mostly) compelling drama. In spite of the flaws of the film’s struggle to intertwine a portrait of substance abuse with some religious fervor, Washington rises above the material and conveys Whip’s fight with a remarkable punch. It’s just too bad that the actor didn’t sign on to play alongside Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Smashed, since that little indie is a film worthy of his talents.

Rating: ★★½ (out of ★★★★★)   

Flight is currently playing in wide release.