By Wilson Morales
When you’re watching a film starring an ‘A’ list actor, you go in wondering if they can immersed themselves in the character they are playing. Many times, you’re never focused on the character or the story, but rather how actor looks or acts. When describing the film to someone, you either start by saying, ‘The new Tom Cruise film, the new Will Smith film, or the Denzel Washington film. In this case, we have the latter, and with that, we also asked ourselves if the character he’s playing is flawed, a victim, or a hero.
In Robert Zemekis’ return to live action filmmaking, he’s given Denzel Washington all three traits just described in “Flight,” a harrowing and engrossing account of what addiction can do to one’s morality. Aided by Washington’s memorable performance and a thrill seeking, edge-of-your-seat, nine minute action sequence, “Flight” is an emotional roller coaster that will have audience holding their stomachs.
Washington plays Whip Whittaker, a cool-as-a-cat airline pilot who at the beginning of the film we learn that he’s sleeping with a fellow colleague, his ex-wife is harassing him for tuition for his estranged son, and he has a penchant for booze and cocaine before his day starts in the sky. It’s the alcohol and drugs he needs to get his confidence up and running. On a routine trip from Orlando to Atlanta, he greets his staff, which includes flight leader Margaret and Katerina Marquez, the flight attendant he’s having the affair with. Along the ride is another co-pilot Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty), who has never worked with Whip, but knows well enough that Whip has had one drink too many. It’s not enough that Whip already drank prior to getting on SouthJet flight 227, but he has to have a few mini-bottles of vodka before he can take off.
While the plane Whip is guiding experiences normal turbulence due to a severe storm, he’s able to calm the passengers once they see the sun and clouds. Ken seems uncomfortable that Whip is taking a short nap while in the air, and things get worse when mechanics start failing and Whip is suddenly awoken. With the plane inevitable going down, Whip does what no other human could have done and miraculously inverts the aircraft so that it can balance the plane smoothly before it goes down. The maneuver saved the lives of many.
Banged up, and waking up in a hospital bed, Whip is greeted by his old buddy and now union rep Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood), who tells him that while his actions were unbelievably heroic, a few lives were lost, 6 out of 102, and someone has to be held accountable. Whip has to go over the last few days of his actions before he talks to airline investigators. While catching a smoke in the hospital stairway, he meets Nicole and another patient (James Badge Dale), who tells him it must be fate that two surviving souls meet in one area. Whip then meets with Charlie and lawyer Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle), who’s there to get Whip out of this jam, but needs Whip to be truthful about why his blood report showed signs of alcohol and drug intake. If he’s found liable, Whip is looking at some prison time.
Initially tossing out the booze and telling his friend and drug contact Harling Mays (hilariously played John Goodman) that he’s going cold turkey, Whip attempts life as a clean and sober person. With his new lover Nicole on his side, he thinks he can avoid any forthcoming problems. But without the right push, the abyss of depression is coming and Whip has to determine if that’s what it takes to find absolution.
Although it’s been years since he did emotional films such as “Forrest Gump” and Cast Away,” and while he’s been he doing these performance capture animation film such as “The Polar Express,’ “Beowulf,” and “A Christmas Carol,” he hasn’t lost a beat.
The core and catalyst of the film is of course, Washington’s credible performance. As with most of his films, he’s a commanding presence. Whether he’s playing the good or bad role in films such as the assassin Tobin Frost “Safe House”, the train conductor Frank in “Unstoppable,” and gangster Frank Lucas in “American Gangster,” the audience is usually led to root for his character, even if the role is morally corrupt.
Screenwriter John Gatins has given Washington one the best roles of his career. Yes, he’s played memorable roles before and has two Oscars and a some nominations and accolades for some of them, but with Whip Whitaker, we see a guy having to decide if he should fight fate and accept being the people’s hero or allow himself to fall from grace. Any sort of addiction comes with denial and ‘Flight’ examines that aspect when self-awareness is no longer a factor in the equation.
With the exception of scene-stealer John Goodman as Whip’s coke supplier, the rest of the supporting cast gives in strong performances with Cheadle, Reilly, and Greenwood standing out as Whip’s defenders. It’s nice to see Cheadle and Washington back together after working on ‘Devil in a Blue Dress’ over 15 years ago.
The only complaint there may be is the inclusion of Reilly in the beginning. So much time is spent developing her character that it really didn’t have a big payoff in the end.
Watching Washington go up and down with his decision to stay clean or not is what makes ‘Flight’ alive, compelling, and intriguing. While the film is a little over two hours, this challenging drama never runs out of steam.