‘Flight’ features a powerful Denzel Washington performance

Denzel Washington in ‘Flight’ — Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Denzel Washington is about as reliable as Thanksgiving falling on a Thursday every year. Is there any doubt that he deserves to be ranked among the best in history? From his Oscar-winning turns in Training Day and Glory to his groundbreaking performances in The Hurricane and American Gangster, the man is in complete control of his craft. One of his best performances can now be seen in Robert Zemeckis’s Flight, a superb drama written by the talented John Gatins.

Washington plays Whip Whitaker, an alcoholic commercial airline pilot who dabbles in relationships with his flight attendants, drugs and general lack-of-responsibility situations. After nursing a hangover with a few lines of cocaine and an OJ spiked with vodka, Whitaker takes to the skies for what should be a routine flight from Orlando, Fla., to Atlanta.

It’s anything but routine.

Whitaker’s plane begins falling apart in the sky, and he needs to act on his unmatched instincts to land the behemoth and save more than 100 souls on board. His plan is quite unconventional and met with a few “You got to be kidding, me?” stares. The pilot decides to invert the airplane to level off and then glide into a field.

After enduring a concussion and lacerations during impact, Whitaker wakes up in a hospital bed to learn that he saved most of the lives on the plane. Only six people, including two flight attendants, perished. He’s a hero, and the media want to tell his story. The problem is a little organization known as the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). The federal group is beginning to question toxicology reports that show Whitaker was high and drunk at the time of the accident (drugs “high,” no altitude high). Within a few short minutes, the “hero” falls from his mighty throne.

The cast of supporting characters help to populate the story. John Goodman plays Whitaker’s drug dealer and overall reliable friend. He talks quickly, tells people he’s “on the list” to gain access to hospital rooms and always seems to have booze and drugs nearby. Bruce Greenwood plays Whitaker’s aviation friend and the man representing the pilot’s union during the post-accident ordeal. Don Cheadle is the lawyer who’s called in to hopefully save the day.

The great Kelly Reilly, star of the British TV series Above Suspicion, has a storyline that doesn’t fit into Whitaker’s trajectory at first. She’s a heroin addict stuck in a dead-end apartment in Atlanta, with nowhere to go but six feet under. After nearly dying from a drug overdose, she finds herself in the hospital, letting Whitaker bum a cigarette off her. The two kindred spirits find solace in their predicaments.

The movie’s plot is original and certainly open to scrutiny. Could Whitaker actually land a plane after turning it upside down? Would vodka bottles survive intact after a crash landing? The reason that the audience doesn’t care about any holes in the subject matter is because of the fine performances from the cast. Washington completely gives himself over to the role, letting us see all of Whitaker’s bumps and bruises without interruption (and this character has many bumps and bruises). This is raw acting that is finely complemented by Zemeckis’s surprisingly raw filmmaking. This character study doesn’t feel like the product of the man who brought us Forrest Gump (no box of chocolates in this trippy ride).

The true test of a genuinely stellar film can be found among the actors in small parts. Flight has several great ones, including Brian Geraghty, Tamara Tunie, James Badge Dale and Peter Gerety. Each of them carve out beautiful scenes, and they work well with Washington’s centering performance.

Flight will be remembered on Oscar night … or, I’d like to see the best actor performance that can overtake Washington.

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

  • Flight

  • 2012

  • Directed by Robert Zemeckis

  • Written by John Gatins

  • Starring Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, John Goodman, Bruce Greenwood, Don Cheadle, Brian Geraghty, Tamara Tunie, James Badge Dale, Peter Gerety

  • Running time: 138 minutes

  • Rated R for drug and alcohol abuse, language, sexuality/nudity and an intense action sequence

  • Rating: ★★★★

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications. E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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