I’m not certain when the feeling set in for me, but at some point during the Flight screening I attended, I was overcome with the sense of observing the dark days of Stevie Ray Vaughan, the virtuoso Texas guitarist who died in the early 1990s after years of working as a sideman (most notably with David Bowie on his 1980s classic Let’s Dance) and taking center stage with his own band. Vaughan’s fiery flights of fancy on his ax are legendary among guitar aficionados, but there are just as many tales of his epic bouts with drug and alcohol addiction. Vaughan was definitely not alone in this predilection. Musicians are well-documented substance abusers, whether to fuel creative musings or to keep some fragile grip on sanity.
Yet, it was Vaughan’s story that resonated with me as I watched Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) wake up one fateful morning and stare at the naked butt of one of his flight attendants before draining the remnants of a beer and snorting a line of cocaine as part of his pre-flight ritual. The ease of this routine cues audiences in to this as a sad and dangerous reality for Whip. Not only is he a hound for booze and women, but he’s also found that he can function in this state. And function quite well, in fact.
And so, as that morning progresses, the everyday touchstones are there. Whip emerges clean-shaven, eyes protected behind his aviator shades, his cool, confident stride a graceful dance along the edge or the tightrope that only we can see and appreciate. He takes his coffee black with lots of sugar and straps in next to a young co-pilot who intuits that there’s something slightly off-kilter about the man in charge.
The flight starts off mired in turbulence and questionable decisions.
Why push the plane so hard, so fast? We feel the impending doom during takeoff and not just because we as an audience know this is Robert Zemeckis, the director who shook us to our cores with another catastrophic plane crash in Castaway, leaving Tom Hanks stranded alone on an island so long he ended up bonding with a volleyball.
But the deck is stacked here with what we’ve seen of Whip. He gets through the takeoff and then goes out to calmly address the passengers, while strategically shielding himself from view as he pours two small bottles of vodka into a container of orange juice with practiced precision. Before the eventual tragic drama kicks in, Whip is asleep in the cockpit, but he awakens as cool as cool can be as the situation hits full-crisis mode. He not only reacts, he takes aggressive action that would border on the truly reckless if evaluated under a more controlled circumstance.
In those key moments, Whip is Vaughan onstage, blisteringly gliding up and down the Blues scales in pursuit of a path only he can see and hear. Being high, flying that high above it all, must grant a sense of peace beyond fear or passion. And this must be the place that Whip (and Vaughan and any other addict) longs to be all the time, in this fleeting moment.
In Flight, Whip’s story is paralleled by that of an addict named Nicole (Kelly Reilly) who overdoses right before Whip’s plane glides by before its crash. Whip encounters Nicole later, in the hospital, each of them seeking a moment of solace as they enjoy a smoke. They bond and we observe the merging of these two souls even as they move in opposite directions. Nicole sobers up, despite the difficulty of refusing to succumb to the temptation to chase that illusive high. Whip goes in the other direction as the crash investigation heads toward its inevitable findings regarding his state of inebriation and another crash looms.
Select musical choices on the soundtrack are a bit too on-the-nose, but they are used to drill home points that Zemeckis wisely refuses to tell us. Flight is all about simply sitting back and watching one man and the choices he makes each step of the way. We see him for what he is and it is also fascinating to note that the story never looks back too far or too long for explanations or root causes of his condition. There’s no need to rationalize Whip’s drinking away. He is an alcoholic because he drinks, plain and simple, taking (and living) life, as Vaughan sang toward the end, by the drop. (R) Grade: A-
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