FLIGHT (Rated R)
Film director Robert Zemeckis (“Back to the Future”) appears to be outside of his comfort zone with “Flight.” But then, anyone contemplating an airline trip shortly after watching this film may be slightly edgy and not in a comfortable place.
“Flight” opens with a terrifying scene. No, I am not referring to Denzel Washington’s Captain Whip Whitaker enjoying an all-night party of sex, booze and cocaine with a hot flight attendant (Nadine Velazquez).
This hotel room party scene occurs prior to Whitaker’s morning flight to Atlanta. The thought that he pulls himself together with lines of coke at the hotel and a few snorts of vodka on the plane may be the scary part.
Captain Whitaker, notwithstanding an addiction to drugs and alcohol, is an exceptional pilot, having earned his wings in the Navy. In the cockpit, he is a commanding, steady presence.
On the ground, Whitaker’s personal life is an entirely different story. His ex-wife only wants to talk about financial support. His teenage is resentful of his father’s emotional absence.
Two portraits of Whitaker’s character begin to emerge after the fateful plane crash, which by now must be familiar to most moviegoers who have seen the TV ads or trailers.
After initial exposure to Whitaker’s lifestyle, “Flight” delivers what is inarguably the most harrowing flight disaster ever conceived and put on film.
In a terrible storm, Whitaker artfully steers his passenger jet to smooth skies and away from severe turbulence, much to the joy of grateful passengers.
Yet, from the beginning, his younger co-pilot (Brian Geraghty) appears to be extremely nervous, but that’s more likely due to his suspicion that Whitaker may be operating at less than the optimal level.
Shortly thereafter, the calm skies fail to offer any confidence when the plane’s hydraulic system malfunctions and the airplane plunges into a steep dive, causing extreme panic for the frightened passengers.
Actually, everybody is afraid, even the flight crew. Except for Whitaker, who maintains surprising equilibrium as he tries to figure a maneuver that will avert a crash from which no one would walk away.
Whitaker inverts the plane, flying it upside-down so as to pull out of the uncontrolled descent, thereby buying some time in which to right-size the aircraft in time to land in an open field.
Of the 102 persons on board, 96 survive, thanks to Whitaker’s brilliant if unorthodox efforts. Suddenly, he’s a hero, sort of like Captain Sully Sullenberger, and eagerly pursued by news reporters.
Despite his heroics, Whitaker was also injured in the crash, and after getting out the hospital, he hides out at his grandfather’s old farmhouse to avoid the media glare.
At first, Whitaker dumps all the booze hidden in cabinets and drawers. He befriends pretty, young Nicole (Kelly Reilly) at the hospital, and invites her to stay with him when she is evicted from her shabby apartment.
Oddly enough, Nicole, a recovering drug addict, seeks to convince Whitaker to clean up his act, even taking him to an AA meeting where he can barely sit still.
Meanwhile, the feds start investigating the crash site and the remains of the plane, and a toxicology report reveals Whitaker’s excessive levels of booze and drugs in his system. The pilot faces serious criminal charges.
Whitaker’s old Navy buddy Charlie (Bruce Greenwood), a pilots’ union official, wants to help, and brings aboard a hotshot lawyer (Don Cheadle) to work some legal magic.
The pressure builds on Whitaker. He is not exactly cooperative with the legal team or the airline honchos. The inevitable relapse to more booze and drugs soon follows.
In less capable hands, Washington’s flawed Captain Whitaker would be likely viewed as a rather unappealing, selfish drunken loser with few redeeming qualities.
To the contrary, Washington brings his considerable charm and affability to a role that might not otherwise elicit sympathy from the audience. Still, it is rather uncomfortable to keep rooting in his corner.
“Flight” is not a spiritual journey, but it does take substantial measure of a fallible man’s soul, probing many of the dark corners of his self-destructive behavior.
Just like the jetliner featured so prominently, “Flight” has its share of flaws. The startlingly crash sequence is a stunner, and Denzel Washington is steadfastly on top of his game. But there are some plot holes.
It should be noted that John Goodman, channeling his character from “The Big Lebowski,” brings comic relief as Whitaker’s drug-dealing enabler.
“Flight” is definitely a worthwhile entertainment, delivering one unapologetically hellacious ride.
DVD RELEASE UPDATE
Like a broken record, this space keeps touting the release of favorite classic TV series on DVD. “Mr. Lucky” and “Peter Gunn” were truly vintage shows.
Now we are back to the more recent past, celebrating the DVD release of another season of “The Streets of San Francisco,” a gritty police drama from the 1970s.
“The Streets of San Francisco: Season Five: Volume One & Volume Two” brings back Michael Douglas as the college educated Inspector Steve Keller, teamed up with veteran detective Mike Stone (Karl Malden).
Season Five heralds the arrival of a new colleague. Richard Hatch stars as inspector Dan Robbins, who has a lot to learn about being a police detective on the streets of San Francisco.
The DVD is presented in full screen format, with a total running time for both volumes clocking in around 1,200 minutes of excitement and thrills.
Tim Riley writes film and television reviews for Lake County News.