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November 4, 2012

I can only assume that the stress of working as a commercial air pilot is unfathomable. Your every day routine consists of maneuvering a steel death trap filled with dozens of human beings at a time through unspeakably high altitudes for hours on in. You can only hope and pray that each landing goes according to plan and that everyone on board stays buckled in with their seats in an upright position to avoid bodily harm. It’s no wonder that flight attendants and pilots flip out every now and then, cursing out passengers over the intercom before grabbing two beers from the service tray only to quit by deploying and sliding down the evacuation slide. And remember the hoopla over the two pilots attempting to drunkenly fly a few years back? However, not all people in the air lose their marbles; Pilot Chesley Sullenberger became a national hero when he safely landed a plane in the Hudson River after engine failure caused it to go down.

Robert Zemeckis’ Flight is the dramatic story of what would happen had a Sullenberger type pilot became a hero only for others to discover that not only was he an alcoholic but drunk before his flight. Denzel Washington stars as Whip Whitaker, a gregarious pilot with a pretty nasty drinking problem and habitual recreational drug use. On a morning flight from Florida to Atlanta (shouts out to ATL!) a technical mishap causes his plane to malfunction and nose dive downward. With panic and the certainty of death in the air, Whip miraculously and calmly maneuvers the plane to roll on the ground saving the lives of nearly everyone on board. Whip instantly becomes a hero, however, as an impending mandatory investigation begins, his drinking habits get called into question and punishment for the few deaths on board could fall on him if it’s proven that his drinking interfered with the his flying.

Flight is an exceptional example of a dramatic character study. For nearly two and half hours audiences follow the emotional ups and downs of Whip’s life as the impending case and attention directed his way causes him to spiral downward into more addiction. Whip is explored inside and out and audiences are exposed to elements of his childhood upbringing along with his desires in life and the problems of his past marriage as well as his vacancy as a father to his nearly adult son. Audiences see Whip in his most foul, off-putting moments yet also his redeeming nurturing side. These various elements of Whip are successfully showcased thanks to not just Flight’s shapely script, but Washington’s always phenomenal acting skills.

Washington makes Whip a complex character with such depth that I couldn’t count how many times I heard the audience collectively groan at his relapses. When he proves himself capable of being a strong-willed person, audiences were right there with him laughing at his jokes and grinning along when he did. But the moment Whip fell into self-pitying despair murmurs of audience members saying “come on,” and “no, don’t do it!” often followed.

Washington isn’t the only actor firmly pulling his weight throughout Flight. Don Cheadle as Whip’s attorney, Hugh Lang, is subdued but impressive along with Bruce Greenwood as Charlie. Yet the only other character to hold a flame to Washington’s magnetism in the film is John Goodman as Whip’s quirky, hippie-like, drug dealing friend, Harling. Goodman is responsible for most of Flights laughs and light moments, but everyone is just captivating to watch.

Forest Gump director Robert Zemeckis will most likely receive an Oscar nomination for best director considering how delicately he films Flight. Zemeckis heavily utilizes long shots and tracking shots, taking his time to travel with characters or to reveal the next scene or bit of action yet at times jarring audiences with quick, rapid cuts to make sure we’re still awake. The film’s opening crash scene is a high-anxiety ride that had me holding my breath as if I too were on that plane and my life was in Denzel’s hands. When he lands semi-safely, I was relieved yet confident he would, not because the trailers told me so but because it’s Denzel, he’s got this.

Pushing past two hours, Flight doesn’t seem particularly over done and melodramatic. Sure it’s heavy on the tears and sad moments but it mixes a fair amount of good humor and enough depth for audiences to truly care and empathize with Whip on his emotional rollercoaster to self-realization. Flight’s got action, tears, drama, breasts, drugs, and a killer soundtrack and impressive use of diegetic and non-diegetic sound. It’s a character study at its finest with pretty stellar performances across the board and a heartfelt conclusion.

SEE IT. And who knows, you may even shed a tear and have a heart for pilots.

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