As the lyrics to the Devo song instruct, “When a problem comes along, you must whip it.”
In Robert Zemeckis’ new intense drama Flight, there’s a major problem – a mechanical failure sends an airliner plummeting toward Earth from 30,000 feet – and it’s Captain, Whip Whitaker, turns into a fictional Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, performing nothing short of a miracle, out-smarting common physics and aviation as he inverts the plane to slow its descent, eventually gliding it into an open field, avoiding what could’ve been a horrific tragedy.
But there’s another problem Whip can’t whip: his addictions. A raging alcoholic, it’s a safe bet this particular flight isn’t the first one Whip has piloted while drinking and flying. From the opening scene of the movie, it’s evident Whip’s addiction is bigger than him, yet he knows how to function through it, thanks to a line or two of cocaine, giving him a much needed boost to make it through the day, or, at the least, a flight.
Writer and former actor John Gatins (Real Steel, Coach Carter) says the story’s origins go back more than a decade when he was a technical advisor on a military-themed movie surrounded by several former naval pilots on the set, hearing firsthand their own “insane stories” of unfavorable landing situations.
But Whip’s situation was much more personal for the screenwriter. ”For me it was an exercise examining my own kind of issues and demons that I’ve had throughout my life,” Gatins (pictured right at the movie’s Los Angeles premiere) explains. For the movie’s alcoholic pilot, brought to life in a devastating and visceral way by Oscar® winner Denzel Washington, it’s when he starts asking others to protect him, when his life starts catching up to him, that he begins to reach a breaking point.
“If he doesn’t face the truth of who he is, he will be destroyed in a much more profound way,” Producer Walter Parkes observes. ”In a more universal sense, we all can relate to certain things that we don’t want to face or come clean on, the lies we tell ourselves and each other. I loved the idea that you’re almost rooting for a bad thing to happen to the main character because that will be the beginning of his redemption. And I’d never seen that story told.”
It’s also a story audiences won’t necessarily expect from Zemeckis, who has focused in the last decade or so on motion-capture, 3D, CGI movies (The Polar Express, Beowulf, A Christmas Carol), but is best known for his Back to the Future trilogy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Forrest Gump, for which he won the Best Director Oscar®. His 2000 collaboration with Tom Hanks, Cast Away, is arguably his only other movie that comes close to exploring the mental and emotional anguish of its lead character.
For Flight, Zemeckis says he was happy to have Washington on-board. ”The genius of Denzel is when he can do something that I like to call ‘performing behind the eyes,’” Zemeckis explains. ”There are many scenes where you can just feel his misery and it’s breathtaking to see. He’s truly one of the greatest actors that we have working today. It was a dream come true to be able to work with him in this part.”
It’s a performance well worth witnessing. Watching a hero fall from grace, in this case mostly internally, is no easy feat, one that very likely couldn’t have been pulled off by many actors. Washington adds his classic charisma to a role that otherwise the audience should loathe – a man who has little shame in his actions, yet he’s resigned to living the rest of his life with an emptiness that could so easily be reversed if he made different choices. To that end, it’s easy to not feel sorry for Whip, to think he’s dug his own grave, made his own bed. And that’s why the last ten minutes of Flight are worth watching Whip’s journey.
Jake Hamilton of Jake’s Takes and Houston’s Fox 26 sat down with the star – who could very well land his sixth Oscar® nomination for his work here – who reflects on the event that changed his focus in life and whether, like Whip, acting requires any lying.
It’s also worth mentioning the outstanding supporting cast surrounding Washington, including Bruce Greenwood as a longtime friend, now a pilot’s union representative. There’s also Don Cheadle as a high-powered, incredibly astute attorney brought in to help Whip in any possible criminal cases brought against him.
Kelly Reilly (the Sherlock Holmes series) is a kindred spirit who meets Whip in the hospital, an addict who desperately wants to help her new friend, but resolute in her own recovery despite his weaknesses.
And then, there’s the incredible John Goodman, who provides a much-needed comedic relief and steals every single one of his scenes playing Whip’s confidante and drug dealer.
Flight is in theaters Friday, November 2nd, is rated R and runs 138 minutes.