A broken hero is more redundant than the busty co-ed in contemporary cinema. We sympathize with his melancholy only because it “shouldn’t have happened to him.” Any Disney Channel Original Movie could produce a salty discharge from even Tony Soprano’s eyes. But the void? Empathy. In “Flight,” a lofty Denzel Washington shoots for exactly that: the antihero worthy of empathy.
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Accomplished director Robert Zemeckis (“Forrest Gump”) beautifully packages a compelling character study in which deceit trumps all. In Forrest Gump, we saw an ideal man born with external deficiencies. “Flight” presents Whip Whitaker (played with oozing and toxic poise by Denzel Washington, “Training Day”) equipped with the ideal exterior and a hugely flawed mental game. Viewers sympathized with Forrest, but they probably empathize with the equally right and sinful Whip of “Flight.”
Whip is an all-smiles, cool-as-a-cucumber veteran pilot. An everyday flight takes a horrifying turn when heavy turbulence evolves into a nosedive free-fall with about a hundred on-board passengers. Whip quarterbacks an incredible last-second effort to flip the plane upside down in order to regain a coasting glide — with no working engines. In a blood-pumping scene, cockpit alarms sound uncontrollably as the plane suffers a rough landing in a field. Five casualties. Whip is a hero. Things are hunky-dory until the toxicology reports reveal Whip’s 0.24 BAC and a positive cocaine test.
Not such a hero anymore, right?
The remaining film probes into all the reasons we should give up on Whip: his incessant and ubiquitous alcoholism, estrangement toward his son and an intractable inclination to lie and lie and lie. Zemeckis is smart — he wants to build a collective aversion aimed at a truly likable yet corrupt character. He wants the character to earn your trust by the end, without guaranteeing anything more than a downward-spiraling debacle of pathetic proportions. This game of self-identity, addiction and egoism paints a poetically dreary picture that begs for rebirth.
In the most moving scene of the film, Whip drunkenly and spontaneously returns home to his divorced wife and distant son. It ends badly — his wife threatening to call the police, the son vigorously trying to wrestle out of Whip’s grasp, and Whip laughing as he forcibly embraces his son, kissing his forehead. This emotive climax showcases a major thematic element in Whip’s crooked mentality: holding on to what is unrightfully his.
Surprisingly, the glimmer of enlightenment comes from the minor role of a charming cancer patient during Whip’s time in the hospital. Knowing his end is within weeks, he softly says that “death gives you perspective.” A message that resonates throughout as people deem the plane miracle “an act of God.”
The depressing moments are somehow inspiring though, like an Edgar Allen Poe work in which the bad revives the good. Luckily, Whip’s buddy-slash-drug-dealer (played hilariously by John Goodman, “The Artist”) counterbalances the attitude of “Flight” via his comic slights, like dropping off “stroke mags” for a hospitalized Whip.
Even the wrongful acts of Whip are brilliantly made cool, courtesy of a dynamite soundtrack. The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” Joe Cocker’s “Feeling Alright” and similar toe-tappers flood the scenes of white line-sniffing and booze-guzzling. It’s all part of the plan: make the uncool cool. A pretty simple task with Washington at the helm.
“Flight” will soar confidently above mass expectations. Denzel junkies will continue to feed the addiction. Denzel unbelievers (Do they even exist?) will be converted. Whether loaded or not entirely sober, Whip’s words, gesticulations and undying ego don’t make us cry for him — we root for him.