Originally published 01/02/13
Following a mid-air incident which prompts Captain William “Whip” Whittaker to perform an unorthodox maneuver and a forced landing which saves the majority of the souls in his charge, he hailed a hero and catapulted into the national spotlight. But Whip is harbouring a secret from the media – one that could change this hero into a villain.
I think it’s fair to say that since the critically mauled “Mars Needs Moms”, there have been question marks over when a Robert Zemeckis production will return to the form shown in films such as “Back To The Future”, “Castaway” or “Forrest Gump”. Well, in a very bold move from the work that he is previously known for as a director, or a producer for that matter, he tackles a film which lays its moral ambiguity bare for the audience to see and, in a lot of respects, is a return to form for Mr Zemeckis.
Denzel Washington provides an interesting character study in the lead role of “Whip”. I have seen Mr Washington in a lot of films and he usually provides characters who are firmly on a side of the morality line – whether it be as a good guy or a bad guy. With “Whip”, he crafts a character who is, for the most part, amoral and selfish due to his addictions to alcohol and cocaine. (No spoilers there as you find out about the character’s addictions in the trailer and they are shown right from the outset).
This selfishness makes the character very difficult to root for, but it is also what highlights the humanity in the performance of “Whip” as Washington shows him wrestling with his demons by protesting that he has his drinking problem under control, but then going on a massive drinks binge in later scenes which give the audience a “way in” to sympathise with a character which the audience should show very little sympathy despite his heroics early in the film. This is particularly highlighted in a scene where “Whip” is challenged by fellow addict Nicole to clean his act up to which he emotionally responds “I love to drink”.
In an Oscar year which contains some very strong performances, I feel that 2013 may not be the year for Denzel Washington, but he provides a performance which is engaging due to its complexity.
Washington is supported by a tight supporting cast in this film. The cynicism of his performance is echoed in the characters portrayed by Bruce Greenwood and Don Cheadle in the roles of Pilot’s Union official Charlie and criminal lawyer Hugh Lang respectively. Both characters are the embodiment of people’s distrust in major corporations as they seek to get “Whip” off being indicted for manslaughter charges for his actions on the technicality of a flawed toxicology report which could be seen as being as bad, if not worse than “Whip”‘s own actions, as they collude with the airline to deflect the blame off the pilot and, by dint of that, the wider company.
John Goodman provides an element of comic relief to the proceedings in the role Harling Mays. As “Whip”‘s drug pedalling best friend, it appears that Goodman has gone to “The Dude” for inspiration for his character, and whilst it’s a funny character to watch the character adds little to the film apart from a couple of chuckles. It’s not that it’s a poor performance, quite the opposite in fact, but Mays isn’t really a necessary character to develop the plot. (For me, if you want to watch a strong recent performance by Mr Goodman, watch him as John Chambers in “Argo”).
In my opinion, the strongest supporting performance comes from Kelly Reilly (who you may know better as Mary from the two “Sherlock Holmes” directed by Guy Ritchie and British detective television series “Above Suspicion”) in the role of fellow addict Nicole. At first, I did wonder why the character featured in this film as the start of this film as her story seemingly has little to relate to the main plot. However, from the point when Nicole and “Whip” meet, you get an interesting study in addiction with Ms Reilly’s character being one where she wants to get clean by getting away from her old lifestyle and gaining a sense of renewed clarity and peace in her life whilst Mr Washington provides a character who seemingly wants to wallow in his addiction by running away from his responsibilities.
The script by John Gatins is interesting as whilst the plot focuses around addiction and the cynical nature of corporations, it also tries to pose the question as to whether there is a higher purpose for us, whether it be through a religious context, fate or pure dumb luck. My own personal difficulty with the storyline is the fact that the cynicism and lack of morality is so entrenched throughout, that the final resolution seems too convenient and I wished that there were more moral questions posed – not only for “Whip” but for those who seek to protect him and, ultimately, their own interests about their bending the truth and the mechanisms of the law to suit their aims.
As much as I love Robert Zemeckis’s “straight arrow” leading characters such as Marty McFly, Forrest Gump, Chuck Noland and Ellie Arroway, the character of William “Whip” Whittaker and “Flight” as a film provide an interesting and engaging change of direction for Mr Zemeckis and I look forward to seeing more films with this in mind.