Robert Zemeckis' "Flight," which opened Friday, is not a movie about airplanes.
In the first live-action film he has directed since 2000's "Cast Away," Zemeckis instead uses the technically brilliant and fascinating plane crash early in the film as a metaphorical framework for addiction, the way it affects everyone nearby, and the obstacles to recovery.
Unlike the films that seem to dehumanize an addict into a one-dimensional straw man for exploitive purposes to further some sort of moral worldview or have an easy tug at our heartstrings, "Flight" introduces the successful airline pilot Captain Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) who just so happens to be an alcoholic and cocaine fiend.
The film opens on the morning of the fateful flight, when Whitaker and a flight attendant, who is also his lover, wake up to a phone call from Whip's ex-wife.
"Oh, he's my son now? Now that you want money so he can go to some private school," Whip says to his wife as he drinks the dregs of one of last night's beers. He doesn't have time to talk about his son because he's got a flight to pilot, but not before he does a line or two of cocaine to level out and appear reasonably sober.
For anyone who has had an addict or two in their life, Washington's performance is almost sickeningly realistic. From the way in which Whitaker rationalizes cocaine as a method for coming up from his alcoholic benders to denying his inability to quit by saying he "chose to drink" rather than have meaningful relationships or priorities in his life are both too-true examples of the faulty logic and delusions of the self-hating addict.
The film doesn't let anyone else off the hook, either. Whitaker is surrounded by people who benefit by enabling him. Some, such as his dealer Harling Mays (John Goodman), are obvious enablers, but others enable him in less obvious ways through either convenience or basic self-interest.
For a movie helmed by a director known more for the animated films he has made in the last decade and the innovative films he began his career with (the "Back to the Future" trilogy and "Who Framed Roger Rabbit"), "Flight" is refreshingly classic in its structure and technique.
The music is excellent and reflects the time period of the classic dramas this film seems to be inspired by. The Rolling Stones song "Sympathy for the Devil" is used throughout the film to underscore temptation (Marvin Gaye's song "What's Going On" is used once to reflect a more wholesome temptation) and Joe Cocker's "Feelin' Alright" illustrates why those temptations can turn into addictions. Overall the soundtrack works very well with the actual content and context of the film and the popular songs included are always useful to the story.
Goodman works as a much needed comic relief and the rest of the cast is truly great.
Although parents are cautioned due to heavy profanity and extensive drug and alcohol use, the film could be used to illustrate the dangers of - and the responsibity we must all eventually take for - the choices we make in our lives.
(Flint McColgan is a staff writer for The Minot Daily News. His movie reviews will appear periodically in Thursday's Arts &?Entertainment section.)