'Flight': Washington's flawless as a flawed hero
Posted November 1, 2012
The image of the heroic he-man, so entrenched in Hollywood mythology, takes an intriguing detour with Flight.
The trend toward exploring the depths of wounded masculinity has generally been a subject for low-budget independent films. But director Robert Zemeckis brings a tormented man into sharp focus for mainstream audiences in this thriller (*** out of four; rated R; opens Friday nationwide).
Denzel Washington plays Whip Whitaker, a commercial pilot who crash-lands a mechanically beleaguered passenger jet in an open field. A former Navy pilot with daredevil tendencies, Whitaker saves nearly all the 102 passengers and is lauded as a hero. But under the swagger is a man hiding a lethal habit.
The morning of the crash, groggy from all the booze and drugs he ingested the night before, Whitaker drags himself out of the hotel room he shared with a young flight attendant (Nadine Velazquez) and assumes the controls in the pilot's cabin.
Somehow despite his debauched lifestyle, he has managed to keep planes -- and his career -- smoothly aloft. Just after the crash it seems as though Whitaker will walk away with his life unscathed. But a toxicology report reveals a criminally high level of alcohol in his system. FAA officials launch an investigation and Whitaker risks losing his job and faces imprisonment. The pilots union hires slick lawyer Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle) to represent him.
The interplay between Washington's Whitaker and Cheadle's Lang is one of the more intriguing aspects of the tale. Whitaker treats the man who could save him with contempt. Lang defends him ably, despite his disgust for Whitaker, who refuses to acknowledge, let alone face down, his addiction. But both men know how to twist the truth for their own purposes.
At its core, Flight is a character study. Whitaker's addictions stem from complex issues that center on father-son bonds -- lasting conflicts with his now-dead Tuskegee Airman dad and more recent clashes with his estranged teenage son (Justin Martin).
Harrowing scenes on board the plunging aircraft feel disturbingly realistic. But as suspenseful as they are, the serious story of a middle-aged man struggling with his personal demons is just as compelling.
Washington deftly maneuvers between cocky arrogance and self-punishing behavior with moments of awareness that flit by, as if in his peripheral vision. Though the pilot is frustratingly self-destructive, the audience roots for him, which is a testament to Washington's nuanced performance.
The film is not without flaws. It glosses over the story of the dissolution
of Whitaker's marriage and does not delve deeply enough into the source of his problems with his son. A romance with recovering junkie Nicole (Kelly Reilly) rarely rings true
But Flight is most worth seeing for Washington, who gives his best performance since 2001'sTraining Day. It is also worth cheering Zemeckis' return to live-action films after his recent disappointing foray into motion-capture fare like Beowulfand A Christmas Carol. It's the director's first live-action film in the dozen years since Cast Away, and like that film, some scenes drag. But the shocking accident upon which the film hinges is a stunning technical feat.
The collaboration of Washington, Zemeckis and screenwriter John Gatins elevates Flight into a turbulent blend of nerve-racking thriller and substantive adult drama.
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