LITTLE ROCK Like Jack Nicholson, John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart before him, Denzel Washington is very much a star. In addition to being able to merely act, Washington can leave an audience spellbound even when his character is repellent.
With a legion of other performers, the opening sequence in Flight would send audiences frantically trampling for the exits. Washington’s “Whip” Whitaker wakes up next to a naked woman almost young enough to be his daughter and spends part of the morning arguing on the phone with his ex-wife about how to raise their teenage son. To get through the stress and the aggravation, he finishes off some beer cans lying around and has a refreshing line of cocaine.
When he reappears, Whip is confidently striding into the cockpit of a jetliner from Florida to Atlanta. You can’t envy these folks. Simply watching him getting ready to taxi the plane is frightening, knowing that he has no business being at the controls.
The weather is as jarring as the captain is inebriated. Before the plane reaches its destination, it practically falls apart in the sky as Whip tries to get it to the ground despite the fact that the landing gears aren’t working.
He awakens to find out that six people have died but that he had somehow been able to keep the vast majority on board alive through a couple of seemingly impossible maneuvers. Many hail Whip as a hero.
If there’s any glory in the event, he doesn’t see it. His hospital lab work reveals that he had so much booze in his system that he could spend life in prison for his offense, and his attorney, Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle), while able to get him out of trouble, hates his guts. While Lang has an encyclopedia of loopholes to get around toxicology reports, it’s obvious he’d rather prosecute than defend.
With Lang’s help, Whip could probably emerge from the crash unscathed. It’s too bad he can’t quit drinking. He expectedly runs into others who’ve battled addiction and looks on them with contempt, especially if they’ve gotten help.
When he befriends a young photographer (Kelly Reilly) whose vices almost sent her to an early grave, she quickly learns that she can’t continue, but he proudly opens any can or bottle that’s available to him. He doesn’t have a favorite brand; he simply prefers open containers to closed ones.
Director Robert Zemeckis asks viewers to go along with Whip’s struggle to stay out of jail and off the bottle, even if it’s easy to share Lang’s disgust. Zemeckis’ films are usually fantasies like Back to the Future and The Polar Express, so this dreary yet fairly realistic tale feels like a change of pace, although his special effects mastery certainly comes in handy during the crash sequence. The accident is suitably bloodcurdling.
Washington brings confidence and dignity to his role as the less than inspiring Whip. All that keeps Flight from really soaring is that, while Zemeckis is surprisingly poised at dealing with darker material, he and screenwriter John Gatins seem too eager to neatly wrap up this messy tale.
It probably took decades for Whip to develop his potentially fatal embrace of spirits, so it would have seemed more credible for a more ambiguous conclusion. Zemeckis is able to match Washington’s charisma with his own courage for most of the film, so it’s a shame his daring isn’t quite up to Whip’s inflexibility on drinking.
Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, Bruce Greenwood, Don Cheadle, John Goodman, Melissa Leo, Nadine Velazquez
R, for drug and alcohol abuse, language, sexuality/ nudity and an intense action sequence
MovieStyle, Pages 35 on 11/02/2012
Print Headline: Turbulent/Not everything gets off the ground in Flight