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Flying without wings – ★★★½

If you don’t concentrate you may think that Robert Zemeckis’ Flight is big budget Hollywood movie about a plane crash and a heroic pilot who saves almost all of the passengers onboard. The reality is that the film is as much about a man falling apart as it a plane falling out of the sky.

Fronting the film is the irrepressible Denzel Washington, who has received a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his efforts. He plays Whip Whitaker, a divorced pilot who we first encounter as he wakes up in a hotel room with an air hostess after a particularly rough night of drink and drugs. To get ready for his flight to Atlanta he tackles a few lines of coke and grabs a shower. After take-off he nabs a few mini aeroplane bottles of vodka, throws them in with some orange juice and allows his co-pilot Ken to do most of the driving as the plane goes through some particularly rocky turbulence. This all works fine until they begin their final descent and the plane starts diving. There’s only one thing for it thinks Whip – “I’LL HAVE TO TURN THIS PLANE UPSIDE-DOWN!”. The plane still crashes but miraculously 96 of the 102 people on-board survive.

Whitaker is fêted as a hero by the media but behind closed doors is being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) as he had irregular levels of alcohol and drugs in his system when the plane crashed. “Irregular levels” being the term used to say he was completely drunk. Representing the pilot’s union is Bruce Greenwood’s Charlie and their lawyer Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle) who both want to get Whip to the NTSB tribunal without any incident and feel a few little fibs can get him off scot-free. Getting to this point means getting clean, which is much harder than it sounds. Rounding out the cast is Sherlock Homes and Eden Lake’s Kelly Reilly as Nicole who acts as somewhat of a moral compass in her role as a former drug-addict who Whip meets in the hospital.

The film really feels like a two-parted endeavour. All the action of the drugs and plane crash takes place in the first half an hour, with the remaining 100 minutes devoted to a character study of an alcoholic – admittedly a vulnerable addict under intense pressure and media scrutiny, but an addict all the same. Washington is surprisingly adept at both these facets which is refreshing considering the larger-than-life characters he has tackled for the best part of a decade now – with great success it should be added. His chemistry with Kelly Reilly is believable, which is all the more surprising when you consider the 23 year gap between them. Their relationship provides the heart of the movie and makes Zemeckis’ first live-action film since Cast Away all the more worthwhile. In fact when considering the two films you could that Zemeckis should leave motion-capture behind and only be allowed to make big movies that feature a plane crash as a plot device in the first half hour. Who’s with me? Anyone?

A quick word for John Goodman who has such a tiny part but is integral to the plot. All I’ll say is that when I wake up feeling as bad as Whip does one morning, I wish I could call on a visit from Roseanne’s hubby.

Ultimately Flight is a solid and enjoyable movie with strong performances which paper over some pretty huge cracks in the script. There are plausibility concerns over the whole story (not least from pilots themselves) and a major few moments where the tone suddenly jumps to become a very different kind of movie (Whip’s son and ex-wife are one-dimensional, the co-pilot Ken is nothing more than a bible-bashing stereotype) but bottom line – this film is worth sticking around until after the crash.

USA  /  Directed By: Robert Zemeckis  /  Written By: John Gatins  /  Starring: Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle, Kelly Reilly, Bruce Greenwood, John Goodman, Melissa Leo  /  138min  /  Drama  /  Release: 1 February 2013 (Ireland, UK), 2 November 2012 (USA, Canada)


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Nigel loves stupid films almost as much as he likes clever films. He'll watch anything but is usually drawn to documentaries, North American independent films, Irish cinema and gung-ho, balls-to-the-walls Hollywood blockbusters. Here's what he's been watching.