Who knew you needed to be sober to fly a jet plane? I thought pilots just sat up the front sipping coffee with their feet on the dashboard while the onboard computer did all the hard work, but apparently they are occasionally called into action, and are consequently expected to stay off the sauce while on duty.
In Robert Zemeckis' Flight, Denzel Washington plays a man who flies drunk as a matter of course and becomes an unlikely hero in spite of himself. The role has earned Washington his sixth Oscar nomination, an accolade he richly deserves, though his performance also deserves a slightly better film.
When we first meet William 'Whip' Whitaker, he's coming to in an Orlando hotel room after a hard night's boozing. He looks at the time, admires the shapely posterior of the flight attendant he's just slept with, finishes a beer that's been sitting on the bedside locker all night, does a line or two of coke and goes to work.
This is business as usual for Whip, and he boards a routine passenger flight to Atlanta brimming with cocaine and confidence. He even sneaks a couple of vodkas into his morning orange juice, but midway through the flight something goes badly wrong.
When the plane's tail- wing apparatus malfunctions, the 227 jet goes into a seemingly irreversible nose dive near Atlanta, and Whip and his crew have only moments to act. While everyone else panics, Whip thinks and acts decisively, rolling the plane upside down to arrest the dive before managing to land it right side up in an empty field. All but six of the 102 souls on board emerge from the crash landing alive, and Whip is lauded as a hero in the local press.
He's received concussion and some minor injuries, and is recovering in hospital when he hears some very bad news. As a matter of course, a blood sample was taken from him while he lay unconscious at the crash site. It's come back way over the limit for both alcohol and drugs, and the airline may now be able to use it to blame him for the crash and send him to jail.
The union had hired a lawyer called Hugh Lang ( Don Cheadle) who's convinced he can get the blood sample ruled inadmissible and make the whole situation go away. All they need Whip to do is lay low, keep out of the papers and, above all, stay sober.
But that he seems totally incapable of doing: though he's in total denial, Whip is a chronic alcoholic whose drinking has destroyed his marriage.
As the crash hearing approaches, Whip's behaviour spins further and further out of control, his equilibrium not helped by his relationship with a recovering heroin addict called Nicole ( Kelly Reilly).
Flight's plot is nothing if not ambitious, and in fairness to Zemeckis' film, it starts off extremely well. With his dazzling smile and trademark swagger, Washington creates a compelling study in self-delusion from the get-go. His Whip Whitaker is someone you instantly want to know more about.
Only after Whip hits the ground and begins to try and worm his way out of self realisation does Flight run into trouble.
It can't quite decide if it's a film about alcoholism or a procedural crime drama, and in the rather pious rush to assemble a histrionic and preachy portrait of an addict's descent towards breakdown, the movie fails to do justice to the story it set out to tell.
It's entertaining alright, but too long and choked by fortune-cookie wisdom.