’Flight’ is fit to fly

Robert Zemeckis and Denzel Washington turn an action movie into a drama about addiction
Paramount Pictures

Not everyone has a fear of flying. But what if the smooth-talking captain on your morning flight had just swigged the last of a beer left on the hotel night table, smoked some pot, snorted a line of cocaine to jolt himself awake, then slipped two mini-bottles of vodka into his orange juice before taking off into violent turbulence? So goes the opening sequence of Flight, a compelling new film starring Denzel Washington as an addicted airline pilot named Whip. And that’s only half the premise. Shortly after takeoff, a mechanical failure sends the plane into a harrowing nosedive. Whip, a former fighter pilot, rolls the aircraft upside down to stop the dive and executes a miraculous crash landing that saves most of the passengers. Then the movie turns into an addiction drama, as the pilot’s heroic feat is tarnished by an inquiry into his fitness to fly.

What’s remarkable is that this picture comes from director Robert Zemeckis, the former whiz kid best known for such wholesome fare as Back to the Future and Forrest Gump, and the motion-capture animation of Polar Express and Beowulf. In the past three decades, the closest he’s come to provocation is Who Framed Roger Rabbit’s cartoon vamp sighing, “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.” With Flight, the director tackles his first live-action movie since Tom Hanks shared a beach with a volleyball in Cast Away (2000). And it opens with a full frontal shot of a naked flight attendant crawling out of our hero’s hotel bed. After the crash, as a gonzo drug dealer (John Goodman) waltzes into his hospital room to the tune of Sympathy for the Devil, we could be watching a Scorsese film.

“You make the movie you’re making,” Zemeckis shrugs when asked about his sudden move from special-effects blockbusters to risqué drama. “We were going to get an ‘R’ for cigarette smoking, so we might as well tell the truth.” The U.S. R rating requires adult accompaniment for viewers under 18. “You can’t make a movie like this for $150 million. It cost $30 million—both Denzel and I waived our fees.”

Zemeckis, 62, owns “a couple of planes” and has been a licensed pilot for 15 years, so he was able to bring an authentic eye to Flight’s cockpit scenes. Whip’s last-ditch move to invert the plane would actually work, he says. “His fighter-pilot instinct kicked in—roll the plane and arrest the dive. It’s got a stuck elevator, so if you reverse the air flow on the elevator, it will cause the nose to go up.” But passenger jets are not designed to fly upside down. “Our experts told us that would work for maybe 40 seconds, because the oil would stop flowing and the engine would start burning up. So we said, ‘Good, we’ll write that in.’ ” While the story was not inspired by an actual event, the director adds, screenwriter John Gatins “cobbled together this fictional incident from a lot of real ones.”

The scary prospect of an alcoholic or drug addict flying a commercial jet is not far-fetched. Zemeckis points out that all airlines have substance-abuse treatment programs for pilots—“After they’ve spent millions of dollars to train pilots, they don’t just want to discard them.” And some airlines give pilots random Breathalyzer tests. In 2009, an American Airlines pilot was arrested at Heathrow airport in London after failing a test. Though incidents are rare, after the 1988 crash of a Colorado commuter plane killed two crew members and seven passengers, an investigation found the captain had used cocaine before the accident. In 2010, U.S. federal regulators were monitoring about 2,000 certified pilots with recent drug or alcohol convictions.

Once the initial drama of the plane crash is over, Flight becomes the story of a struggle with substance abuse. Zemeckis has no personal history of it; he says he’s always been too scared to try cocaine. But like many an addiction flick, his movie rides both sides of the line, delivering a kick of vicarious intoxication before imparting a moral lesson. What remains ambiguous is whether the pilot’s altered state actually helped him land the plane. “You could make the case that he pulled it off because he was high,” says Zemeckis. “That’s what I love about the movie. Nothing is black and white.” And that’s a far cry from Polar Express.