The mischief of casting a grade A thesp like Danzel Washington as an alcoholic airline pilot struggling to maintain the facade of professionalism while hopelessly stoned is that one’s sympathy invariably rests with the anti-hero.
Washington as Captain Whip Whitaker is a veteran flier whose life is one long round of intoxication. Does his lifestyle dull his skills? Maybe not: he can still spend a hot night with a flight attendant, get up early the next morning and make his early flight.
And he can still manage to land his stricken plane when he first hits a storm and then the hydraulics fail, forcing him to crash land but not before turning his airliner upside down to slow its descent.
Flight, directed by Robert Zemeckis (his first live action film since Cast Away in 2000), is a study of addiction and denial. It’s also packed with every manner of motif designed to undermine (or underline) Whitaker.
He’s a bad husband, a stay-away dad, a philanderer, a drunk, a drug addict, a lousy friend, a liar and a liability to his employers.
It’s down to Washington to manipulate these plot elements and to tease his audience.
We should pity this man, not applaud him. But, as Whitaker says, no-one else could have landed that plane. One has to agree.
Washington, Oscar-nominated, weaves between self-confidence and crippling doubt with ease. A scene involving his estranged wife and son, the boy regarding his drunken father with hateful eyes, is masterfully done.
And there is a touching relationship between Washington and Kelly Reilly as a dope addict he meets in rehab.
It could all be terribly fake and affected in the wrong hands – cue soaring music as Whip finds his God and learns the harsh lessons of life. Zemeckis avoids that. In Washington he has a leading man who cannot be false. He exudes truth.
A series of scenes involving John Goodman as a Hawaiian shirted Dr Feelgood type – drugs cabinet at the ready – never really convince though the triangle he creates between haunted pilot, himself and anxious suits (Don Cheadle leads the charge as the airline attempts a cover-up in court) is amusing.