Denzel Washington is no stranger to tormented characters with overwhelming notions of guilt and regret. So when he gets sent a script about an alcoholic, cocaine-dependent airline pilot, naturally there would have to be a sense of familiarity for the already two-time Academy Award winner. What sets his Oscar-nominated (and rightfully so) performance in this apart from his similar dramatic work in films such as Man on Fire  and The Hurricane  is that Washington can exercise his Christian faith in relation to the palpable themes of spiritualism in the film, but more on that later.
In Robert Zemeckis' Flight (that's right - the same Robert Zemeckis responsible for light-hearted sci-fi escapism such as the Back to the Future series), respected ex-Navy airline pilot Whip Whittaker (Washington) prevents a horrific air disaster while under the influence of vodka and cocaine, saving the lives of the passengers on board, or "souls" as they're repeatedly referred to. Well, he saves almost everyone. With a death toll of six - two of which being the flight attendants - Whittaker is under investigation as to the cause of the crash. While we know as well as Whittaker does that a fault with the aircraft is what sent it into the nose dive that caused the accident in the first place, we also know as well as Whittaker that he feels he is just as much to blame for the accident as the plane - we just have to wait the next 90 minutes for him to admit it.
Whip finds an ally in heroin addict, Nicole (Reilly) (image courtesy of Paramount Pictures)
Assisting in Whittaker's defence is Pilot's Union lawyer Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle) and long-time friend Charlie (Bruce Greenwood), both of whom have limited patience when it comes to the tormented pilot's perpetual substance abuse. This is not unlike the average audience member, who will soon grow tired of Whittaker's lamenting struggle with prided guilt as he reopens wounds with his estranged wife and son, who sees an enemy in his drunken father. He finds allies in heroin addict Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a completely superfluous character, and the drug-dealing-but-likeable Harling (John Goodman) who in fact feeds Whittaker's guilt with the constant reminder that he's a hero.
With a toxicology report proving Whittaker's inebriation quickly swept under the rug, Lang submits that it was an act of God that brought the plane down. Whittaker doesn't disbelieve this theory, but it raises many fascinating questions: Is God punishing him? If everyone on board could have easily perished in the crash, did God help land the plane and prevent the worst? And if so, why? Has He given Whittaker the chance to redeem himself? Unfortunately many questions like these go unanswered or unexplored. Instead, the very unfocused middle act of the story chronicles an increasingly tiresome cycle of alcohol-induced remorseful reflection on the crash and what it means for Whittaker if he suffers the full consequences. Many of the secondary characters here are quite prominent in the first act - this is where many of the aforementioned questions are asked, but like the questions themselves the characters disappear from the story. The major issue with the narrative lies in its lack of bearings as we struggle to identify what Zemeckis wants us to take away from this. With a strong, layered opening that provides enough interest to have us invested in what's to come, the narrative trajectory becomes misleading and predictable as it conveniently concludes without really explaining any spiritual depth. Stripped back to its core, Flight is about an alcoholic coming to terms with his affliction and how it controls and destroys his life if he doesn't make a change.
Need drugs? Have no fear - John Goodman is here!! (image courtesy of Paramount Pictures)
In portraying the disagreeable, afflicted pilot, Washington showcases a three-dimensional performance that is both raw and strangely touching. Acting drunk can easily be overdone but Washington cooks to a medium rare. Everything inside him is behind his dreary, pained eyes - we look into them and see a life of torment and shame, if only John Gatins' jarred script let us in to some sort of backstory: what led him to alcohol and drug use? Did something happen in the Navy? What happened to cause his divorce? Was it the alcohol? Or was the alcohol a result of it? The questions go on and on and it's quite mean-spirited in not helping us understand this stimulating character with an equally stimulating actor in his shoes.
A strong central performance from Washington and some oddly comedic encounters with welcomed appearances from the likes of John Goodman and Don Cheadle are where it's at with the dramatic interest of the film. With a spectacularly-staged crash sequence in the first act, the film struggles on the script front to maintain altitude. More questions are raised than answered in what had potential to be a poignant commentary on the presence of God in life and death, actions and reactions. Flight is dense drama that lacks focus and depth where it counts, but is exciting enough to make it worth the trip.