“What tuition?” Whip (Denzel Washington) is on the phone with his ex-wife, frustrated, apparently again, that she’s calling him for money. “Oh he’s my son now,” Whip goes on, “Because you want a fucking tuition check?”
This phone call opens Flight: he’s still in his hotel room bed, slugging the remnants of a beer from the night before, lighting a cigarette, wiping the crusty sleep from his eyes. But even as he goes about this business—and as performed by the formidable Denzel Washington, it’s no small business, but instead a complex characterization—the camera keeps a perspective from the foot of that bed, where his partner of the previous night is dressing. Here the most prominent element in frame is Trina’s (Nadine Velazquez) naked form: she walks to the dresser, she slips into her panties, she moves.
You might think of Trina’s crotch as a distraction, an indication of Whip’s own preoccupation or perhaps his general depravity, that is, his addictions and carelessness, underlined in this same scene when he snorts up a hefty line of coke before he heads out to pilot a commercial jet. In the coming scenes, as Whip makes his way to the cockpit, glasses dark and stride confident, if also briefly unsteady, Trina heads to work as well, as a flight attendant on the same plane. Here she chats with Margaret (Tamar Tunie) and tends to passengers, while Whip cajoles his utterly straight-laced and visibly nervous copilot Ken (Brian Geraghty) into believing that not only does he—Whip—know what he’s doing, but also that he can know what he’s doing while hung over and, at least for a few minutes, snoozing with a map over his eyes.
It’s important that he convince Ken, and also that he convinces you, because Whip’s apparently legendary piloting skills will come under fire when his plane comes apart in midair. It’s a harrowing, lengthy scene, coming just after this set up and not a little like that crash scene in Cast Away, also directed by Robert Zemeckis. Whip’s expert handling of the crash saves most of the “102 souls on board”—the preferred phrasing in his line of work, and uttered repeatedly during the investigation that follows—handling that indicates that—as he puts it—he’s “got control.”
But of course he doesn’t have “control,” because you’ve seen the hotel room scene, his arguing with the ex, his estrangement from the son, his maybe casual relationship with Trina and his absolutely terrible relationship with vodka and cocaine. Still, the film turns this idea of having control into its primary point of contention, worry, and revelation. It’s an effective point to press, too, as Whip is a very familiar movie alcoholic, not believing he is one and believing that he’s got control even when he’s hammering himself into stupors each night, or when he’s helped along by his blustery throwback dealer, Harling (John Goodman), who knows just how to combine head-crushing booze and stimulating chaser in order to appear functional… enough.
After the wreck, the captain spends some time in the hospital, where he’s visited by members of the NTSB, including one agent, Charlie (Bruce Greenwood), who knows Whip—and his drinking—from way back. Whip’s stars are aligning now, for eve as Charlie’s advising him to behave while he’s being watched, Whip meets another embodiment of the choice he’s facing, a junkie named Nicole (Kelly Reilly), hospitalized after a near fatal overdose. The film runs a visual trick s as it brings them together, such that Nicole is being wheeled to an ambulance in New Jersey just as, overhead, Whip’s jet is roaring to earth, but despite this suggestion of a fated rendezvous or even a movie-meaningful connection, their relationship ends up looking much like Whip’s and Trina’s, which is to say, it’s convenient—for the plot and for the mapping of Whip’s trajectory.
Nicole and Whip actually meet as they partake in another addiction, both sneaked out of their hospital rooms to smoke cigarettes in a stairwell. Here they exchange mutually understanding glances during a monologue on life and death and chance performed by yet a third patient (James Badge Dale), bald, pale, cancerous, waxing philosophical with his IV bag on wheels. Following this pile-up of chance, Nicole ends up moving in with Whip, but even as she cleans up, he careens, in part because (if “because” makes sense in describing an addict’s trajectory) he’s confronting an nightmarish investigation and legal proceeding, and the lawyer Charlie’s brought in, Hugh (Don Cheadle), is especially slick and brutally vocal about Whip’s needing to stay sober.
No matter the efforts of Nicole or Hugh, or even Charlie, who serves as a kind of intermittent wise advisor, noting Whip’s stumbles and suggesting he perform that in-control bit a little more consistently. While Nicole surely understands the agony of addiction, her role here is limited to looking very sad (and too sexy too, as she replaces Trina as compositional element) when Whip’s illness overwhelms him. Her limitation is also the film’s, which is to say, that even as Hugh and Charlie urge Whip to look like he’s in control, to do what he’s always done and lie his way through interviews and a public hearing too, Whip is an addict who is not in control.
While Flight occasionally makes this clear (and tragic), it also shows a disturbing affection for the show of control, specifically as an entertainment. So, whenever Harling makes an appearance, the movie lurches into another mode altogether, with the Rolling Stones on the soundtrack and the tone shifted into a weird sort of glee. Again, the movie tries to have it a couple of ways, such that Harling is a sort of demon, the incarnation of addiction whom Whip must acknowledge and engage. The problem is, the movie’s use of Harling as an emblem of Whip’s condition, like Trina and like Nicole, makes it too easy to read addiction as a moral failing, a lapse of judgment that the rest of us might judge easily. But the issue is not morality. It’s not having control.