Flight doesn’t really have anything new to say about addiction, but Denzel’s performance as airline pilot Whip Whitaker and the spectacularly staged plane crash at the beginning of the film almost make you not notice that. I don’t want to ruin the harrowing thrills of the crash sequence for you, so I’ll just say that I actually felt sick to my stomach by the end of it. Director Robert Zemeckis is also good at establishing the stakes involved in Whip’s self-destructive habits, so that a bottle of vodka takes on the menace of a loaded gun. As Whip dodges the reality of his addiction, Denzel captures his bravado, vulnerability, and sense of being hounded by his own demons.
Let’s talk about Denzel’s walk for a minute – the confident, loping swagger, just this side of arrogant. He uses it to great effect in a couple of scenes, when Whip is drunk, high on cocaine, and feeling on top of the world. Of course, the irony of is that he feels ready to fly a plane or take on the world when he is in fact severely impaired.
Can we also talk about Denzel’s tears? There’s a moment after the plane crash, when Whip is in the hospital, his face banged up and one eye completely bandaged; he’s talking to his former colleague and only real friend Charlie (a wonderfully humane Bruce Greenwood), and a few tears slip out of his one visible eye. Whip is hardly aware of the tears; there’s no stagey pause for dramatic effect and no sense of the actor forcing the emotion. It’s a sign of how Denzel is living this character down to the core: Whip is processing the shock of the crash, his loneliness (he realizes his estranged wife and son probably won’t visit him in the hospital), and the fact that the experience has, at least temporarily, scared him sober. The tears are heartbreaking, and the moment reminds me of the single tear rolling down Denzel’s face in Glory, signaling pain, defiance, and rebuke.
Zemeckis sometimes tends towards the unsubtle. He telegraphs characters’ personalities or the mood of a scene through a too-obvious soundtrack. For example, when John Goodman first appears in the film, the accompanying music announces his personality. It’s a fun moment, but I wish the director would allow us to discover some things on our own. Similarly, the coda of the film has Whip summarizing what just happened in the prior scene. It’s clear that something shifted inside Whip at the NTSB hearing, compelling him to finally be honest about his addiction. But, just in case we don’t get it, Zemeckis re-states it for us in Whip’s monologue. “I finally feel free,” Whip says, a line too pat to do justice to Denzel’s bone-deep performance.