If Robert Zemeckis took a survey of travelers’ ultimate nightmares, he couldn’t devise a more effective sequence than the plane crash in “Flight”: The sky is blue, the sun is shining, and all at once, with no warning, the plane loses hydraulics and starts heading, speeding, for the earth — nose down.
Then there’s that other nightmare, which also finds its way into the sequence, that of being in a passenger plane that’s flying underneath wires and grazing the tops of buildings. It’s a strange and powerful thing to see nightmares made visible, and for that reason and others, the plane crash in “Flight” must go down as one of the strongest single scenes of 2012: It’s extended, detailed, technically and emotionally realistic, and beyond that, it reveals character. We believe that Denzel Washington is seven miles up in the sky, and we believe that the troubled, gifted pilot he’s playing is just cold and distanced enough to keep his head.
In most ways, “Flight” is a superior movie, and it deserves to be seen. Zemeckis sets the tone from the first moments, in which a nude woman gets up from Washington’s bed, with evidence of the previous night’s debauch scattered throughout the room. Within seconds, we learn that the hungover wreck sticking his head out from the covers is not only an airline captain but one scheduled to pilot a passenger plane in 90 minutes.
The captain, a genius in the air and a drunken mess on the ground, is something of a departure for Washington, but only in the details. In a broad sense, the character has the audacity and the ultimate core integrity that this actor has embodied for most of his career. Despite the dazzling plane crash sequence, not to mention a compelling scene of a plane experiencing horrific turbulence, “Flight” is really an extended character study about the struggle going on inside one man.
What keeps the audience glued is the peculiar circumstance that Captain Whitaker (Washington) finds himself in. He should be the next Sully — his achievement was phenomenal. Yet he was drunk when he was flying the plane, and so he might easily become the fall guy. Don Cheadle and Bruce Greenwood play the lawyer and the union representative, respectively, who are determined to clear the captain and keep him out of prison. But this pilot is his own worst enemy.
Also in the mix, and an incalculably important addition, is Kelly Reilly as Nicole, a recovering heroine addict who meets Whitaker in the hospital. She has morphed into a sleek and slightly damaged beauty, with a distracted, idiosyncratic manner that suggests more than words. Zemeckis deserves praise for casting her. She has been in movies for years, but this is the first time she has ever gotten to bat with the bases loaded. Under Zemeckis’ direction, when Reilly and Washington is on screen, the eyes go to Reilly.
Now for the bad news, saved for last because it hardly deserves pride of place, though it does bring “Flight” down to earth with a noticeable thud: The final 15 minutes are off. That ending is just not the right ending. No, I don’t have a better ending in mind, but the one that’s there simply isn’t right. It would take too many spoiler alerts to explain why, except to say that screenwriter John Gatins seems to have boxed himself into two unattractive possibilities, and he chose the best of the two. He should have rejected the choice.