If the filmmakers behind “Flight” were really interested in an accurate one-word title, they might have called their movie “Booze.” The movie’s true subject isn’t flying but drinking, and the personal will it requires to stop — or not.
Although it initially presents itself as a legal drama about a defiantly drunk pilot who makes a miraculous crash landing, it eventually resolves into a more intimate drama about overcoming a drinking demon.
The disconnect makes “Flight” a frustrating, wildly uneven film — packed with muscular acting and more than a few crackling scenes, but tonally inconsistent and unsure of where it wants to go or what it wants to be.
Like the failed flight that becomes the movie’s centerpiece, it stays in the air longer than it should through spectacular acts of individual performance, but still comes apart at the end.
The movie’s first hour is its strongest. It starts in an Orlando, Fla., hotel room as a commercial airline pilot, Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington), rises from a night of heavy drinking and decides to top it off with a few more drinks and a line of cocaine. He then proceeds to fly a packed commercial jet bound for Atlanta — until it takes a nose dive into a field.
Whip’s heroic piloting — he flips the plane upside down to slow the descent — allows all but six of the plane’s crew and passengers to live. It’s a tense, masterfully executed sequence, and it sets up the film’s central question: Is he a hero? Or a dangerous drunk?
The movie’s answer is: Yes. But it doesn’t dwell on this intriguing contradiction as much as it could or should. Instead, it follows Whip down the predictable path of alcoholic self-destruction while the crash investigators look for a way to pin the blame on pilot error.
Whip’s boozy descent produces a groan-inducing obviousness, which quickly becomes repetitive and unbelievable. Whip’s alcoholism is simply too over the top. He can’t seem to get through a night without drowning himself in drink so thoroughly that he can neither talk nor walk.
We’re supposed to believe he also is a successful, competent pilot who has learned to function despite his thirst. Yet aside from the opening crash, all we see is his dysfunction.
Whip’s descent is mirrored by the recovery of Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a drug addict he meets in the hospital after the crash and somewhat implausibly allows to move in with him shortly thereafter. It’s yet another lazy subplot about a woman whose only role is to help a male protagonist toward his own self-actualization; the movie doesn’t even care enough about the story line to fully resolve it.
Indeed, director Robert Zemeckis, whose last foray into live-action filmmaking was “Cast Away” — another riff on life after a plane crash — never quite seems to have control of his movie. What keeps it going is that the actors do.
As Whip’s drug dealer, John Goodman kicks zany life into a handful of memorably outrageous scenes. They don’t fit the movie’s somber tone, but they are fun to watch. Bruce Greenwood and Don Cheadle, as the pilot’s union representative and a big-shot legal fixer, do marvelously subtle work in roles that exist mostly for expository purposes.
But the movie belongs to Mr. Washington, who remains one of the most powerfully watchable stars in Hollywood. His performance is so strong, so engagingly real, in fact, that it covers many of the story’s weaknesses. When Whip defiantly insists that no one else could have crash-landed the broken plane so well, you believe it. Not because the movie’s story proves it, but because the power of Mr. Washington’s performance does: No one else could have played this difficult role so well.