Co-pilot Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty) is at the helm of SouthJet Flight 227 from Orlando to Atlanta only because the plane’s captain, Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington), has passed out after a night of debauchery devoted to drinking booze and snorting coke while carousing with one of his stewardesses (Nadine Velazquez). But when the commercial airliner unexpectedly encounters severe turbulence and starts losing altitude, the concerned rookie immediately rouses the senior officer out of a deep sleep for assistance.
Despite a blood alcohol level over twice the legal limit, the veteran aviator assumes control and quickly ascertains that the plane’s plunge is due to a complete failure of the hydraulic system. He further surmises that the only hope of pulling out of the precipitous nosedive depends upon his lowering the landing gear prematurely, dumping fuel, and flying the aircraft upside-down.
Against all odds, he executes each step flawlessly, unless you count clipping the top off a church steeple moments before making an emergency landing in an open field. 96 of the 102 souls aboard survive, and Whip’s astonishing feat is soon the subject of a national media circus, ala Sully Sullenberger’s real-life Miracle on the Hudson.
However, in the course of conducting its routine investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) subsequently uncovers incriminating evidence that the pilot had a blood alcohol level of .24 at the time of the accident. And since a half-dozen people perished in the crash, Captain Whitaker could conceivably be held criminally liable for their deaths.
Will the celebrated hero’s image be tarnished by scandal? Not if his defense attorney (Don Cheadle) and union rep (Bruce Greenwood) have anything to say about it. The two hatch a plan to suppress the toxicology report and to sober Whip up by the time of the NTSB hearing.
Directed by Academy Award-winner Bob Zemeckis (for Forest Gump), Flight is a riveting thriller marked by spellbinding special effects and a nonpareil performance on the part of two-time Oscar-winner Denzel Washington (for Glory and Training Day). After the spectacular, stomach-churning, opening scene plane crash, the picture shifts in tone to a character-driven portrait of a self-destructive addict in denial and plagued by demons.
The capable supporting cast features Kelly Reilly as Whip’s love interest, John Goodman as his drug dealer, Melissa Leo as a snoopy NTSB bureaucrat, as well as Don Cheadle and Bruce Greenwood. But make no mistake, this is as much a star vehicle as Zemeckis’ Cast Away, where Tom Hanks was the only actor on screen for over an hour.
An instant screen classic destined to be deemed among the very best of Zemeckis, alongside Gump, Back to the Future and What Lies Beneath.