There are lots of films that deal with addiction, often by layering scenes of deprivation and drug abuse with rock music, an attempt to show the attraction of the drug and set it against the toll. Flight is a similar film, with a Scorsese-like Rolling Stones heavy soundtrack. Though it treats the overcoming of drug addiction as a redemptive and religious spectacle, the effects of the drug seem to be its primary focus.
Flight starts with a tense and spectacular plane crash, its low death toll crash landing an apparent miracle thanks to pilot Whip (Denzel Washington), who just so happened to be drunk and high whilst flying the plane. When the lawyers start to take over, the fact that the crash was due to bad maintenance comes to be less and less relevant as Whip faces the possibility of life imprisonment for criminal negligence.
Flight charts Whip’s addiction to alcohol and drugs with a fascination reserved for people who live outside society’s rules and who don’t care who knows it. Yet it is full of corny religious imagery and a strong need to redeem an apparently unredeemable character. The film suggests that there is comedy and rock-scored euphoria in Whip’s frequent descents and yet insists on a religious conversion, placing bets on both sides – God and the demon drink. How are we supposed to take the scene in which Whip is asked to pray alongside his co-pilot and his somewhat deranged and unblinking wife? Is Zemeckis laughing at them or does he wholeheartedly believe in what they are saying? Why are the filmmakers much more attracted to John Goodman’s crass, annoying Harling Mays than Whip’s disabled co-pilot and his wife? Ultimately, the film seems to validate the religious couple and yet still presents drug abuse in an aesthetically pleasing way. Every time Whip snorts a line, the moralizing disappears, the soundtrack cranks up and the camerawork goes for stylish, music video aesthetics where it was rather tame and slow-paced before. It is a case of a film pulling in two different directions and failing to cohere. Washington’s strong performance grounds the film to a degree but ultimately, it is difficult to know what the film is trying to say. Either alcohol and drugs are cool or they are damaging and either religious sloganeering is the way to salvation or it is comical and unrealistic. Whip’s redemption feels like the kind of thing that has to happen in a Hollywood film about drug abuse and yet it does not seem to cohere with the sentiments of the filmmakers.
Whip himself does not seem to be want to be saved until an unsurprising change of heart very late in the film. Addiction films are often overcome by the opposition of what the protagonist wants and what the audience wants and Flight is no different. If Whip feels that his life choices are for the best, who are we to insist that he alters them? Ultimately, however, Whip’s degradation and eventual transformation are just not that interesting and the little-mentioned legal manoeuvrings of Hugh Lang and Charlie Anderson (Don Cheadle and Bruce Greenwood) seem a lot more important and morally complex.
Zemeckis is in control when directing CGI spectacle and the plane crash sequence is the best in the film, but he is hopelessly lost during the adult scenes involving emotion and conversation. The fact that Whip is a functioning alcoholic is addressed but even this complexity cannot be sustained as the film rushes towards its black-and-white conclusions. When he introduces junkie Nicole (Kelly Reilly), initially all ill-fitting clothes and needle marks, he adds a soundtrack of shrill electric guitar twangs to show how serious it is and then opts for a porn film set conversation which immediately strains credibility. The film starts with full frontal nudity, played casual though clearly intended as a rather childish shock tactic to outrage the morally conservative. However, Flight is uncomfortable with such transgressions in the way that only a big budget blockbuster can be and there is an air of the film scaring itself with its own apparent awards season boldness. When Flight tries to be gritty, it just sounds shrill and looks ridiculous, Guy Ritchie trying to channel Ken Loach.
The film feels like the work of a deeply religious and conservative man who is yet too much of a hipster to wholeheartedly back his own sentiments. Flight is a religious film – Whip’s addictions are frequently linked to his atheism - and yet it is embarrassedly so. It aims to please, its controversial subject handled in such a way as to make everyone happy and no one angry. The film concludes with the self-flagellation of a confession and a horribly tacky scene of reaffirmation and self-definition. In the end, it has nothing to say about drug addiction and a lot to say about the simplistic and superficial way that Hollywood can treat such issues.