A study of the harmful (and maybe positive) effects of addiction, with sensational flight crash FX, along with elements of courtroom drama. Relentlessly depressing until the very end, except for a comedic turn from John Goodman channeling his Walter Sobchak, from The Big Lebowski (1998).
As the pic opens, pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) has just finished up a bit of mufky-fufky with girlfriend Trina (Nadine Velazquez), later revealed to be a flight attendant on his upcoming trip. Whip’s co-pilot Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty) seems as by-the-book, as Whip is unconventional. And this means more than just being an alcoholic, who has consumed a couple of vodkas while on-board.
Their flight is a short one, just from Orlando to Atlanta, but problems occur straightaway, in the form of serious turbulence. Whip handles it brilliantly, only to then be faced with complete loss of hydraulic control, so that the plane is headed for sure disaster. At this point, he maneuvers the aircraft into a position of flying inverted, which prevents the nosedive, letting him right the craft into a glide, and a landing that minimizes casualties.
At the same time, we are introduced to the sad life of heroin addict Nicole (Kelly Reilly). The paths of Whip and Nicole will cross at the hospital where Whip is taken after the crash, and Nicole is taken after a near-fatal overdose. As they battle their demons, they become friends, even as Whip’s situation is deteriorating.
Although he saved most of the passengers and crew with his almost supernatural flying heroics, the fact that he survived, and six souls on board did not, makes him a target. Naturally, it won’t help that he was flying while intoxicated, even if there was definite mechanical failure of the aircraft.
This will all play out against a backdrop of personal as well as institutional meltdown.
***SPOILERS AND OTHER COMMENTS***
I’m not sure what helmer Zemeckis was going for with the extraordinary amount of gratuitous nudity (of Velazquez) at the beginning of the movie. Maybe it has something to do with her dying in the crash. “Exposed” and all that.
Hinted at, but not explored, is the notion that Whip could perform his incredible flying only BECAUSE he was intoxicated, with added cocaine to sharpen him up.
It is distressing, but not at all surprising, that his flight heroics are soon overshadowed by an aggressive attempt to destroy his reputation, as well as put him in jail, because of the drinking. In a perfect world, he would have merely lost his license, and could have gone on the talk show circuit. In the real world, though, someone must pay.
Ironically, the obvious cause of the accident—inadequate maintenance of the aircraft—would likely have been lost had a major crash ensued, but since Whip saved the day, this was discovered, and he screwed himself. Talk about being self-destructive. No coincidence that the specific part that failed was a jackscrew.
Much is made of the accident being an “Act of God,” as well as contrasting examples of people’s understanding and attitudes with respect to God’s will. Whip’s encounter with a terminal cancer patient at the hospital, who has a remarkably cheerful viewpoint regarding his imminent death, plays well against the zombie-like pronouncements of co-pilot Evans’ wife.
Missing from the proceedings was any hint of backstory, as to how Whip became such a raging alcoholic.