BY MICHAEL SMITH World Scene Writer
Friday, November 02, 2012
11/02/12 at 3:41 AM
It feels wrong to say that Denzel Washington delivers an average performance in "Flight," which is to say that's he is remarkable. The man is routinely excellent at his craft, but we shouldn't take that for granted.
As Capt. Whip Whitaker, he is an airline pilot, and he is a drunk. But for all of the alcoholic roles Hollywood has delivered previously, Washington pulls off the role of the functioning drunk in a way not seen before.
To see the man down a beer and snort a line of cocaine before heading to the airport is to put the audience on alert that Whip is a threat to the public, behind the wheel with a .24 blood-alcohol content.
To then see him pilot a malfunctioning, crash-landing jetliner and save almost everyone on board - imagine Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger accomplishing his heroics if he'd been on an all-night bender - is to realize that this is a man grown comfortable in his intoxicated state.
This is a man whose instincts alone allow him to deliver, whether on a daily basis or in a moment of crisis, and it creates a fascinating conundrum: An alcoholic who is never exposed for his flaws seeks neither redemption nor forgiveness for them.
Whip can still fly despite his drinking. Whip drinks to chase away his demons down on the ground, like an ex-wife he has disappointed too many times and a son who won't talk to him.
This makes Whip a defiant character throughout "Flight," directed by Robert Zemeckis, who is making his first non-"motion capture" film in 12 years after "The Polar Express," "Beowulf" and "A Christmas Carol."
The "Forrest Gump" filmmaker's last such picture was "Cast Away," and like that movie, "Flight" begins with an air disaster that leaves its protagonist on an island.
Whip's island is of his own making, being that of a man who doesn't need anyone besides his friends Jim Beam and Jack Daniels, among others. Washington's gift is his ability to play the Everyman archetype, putting his character's humanity on display even when that man is a scoundrel.
We have cheered for him so many times that we continue to root for Whip as a hero who should want more out of life. We root even when his defiance shows us we are hoping against hope.
But to those of us who have known alcoholism in our own family, we know the importance of support, which is a constant theme of the script by John Gatins ("Coach Carter").
Washington is exceptional throughout, though I wish Whip had more shading as a person beyond his resistant, I-don't-have-a-problem attitude. But his depiction of a drunk feels authentic and nuanced among the canon of such films as "Leaving Las Vegas" and "The Lost Weekend."
The film itself does have a few flaws that cannot be denied, and these begin with a secondary story about a young woman (Kelly Reilly from the "Sherlock Holmes" movies) with a drug addiction.
Her story is awkwardly played side-by-side with Washington's in the beginning, until their characters meet in a hospital after the crash.
As fellow addicts, they are naturally drawn to each other's ordeals, but their pairing as a couple feels too coincidental and rushed, and by the conclusion her importance as his guide to potential recovery is diminished to that of a tacked-on plot device.
"Flight" frequently soars not only because of Washington, but also due to exceptional supporting players.
John Goodman makes one of this year's most audacious comedic entrances as Whip's pal/supplier of all things illicit, while Don Cheadle - as a play-to-win lawyer who despises Whip, but whose cagey legal maneuvers may keep him out of prison on manslaughter charges - is subtle brilliance.
The plane crash at the beginning of the film is truly harrowing and shows Zemeckis' technical skills to be in fine form, with my audience having gone silent while watching, but I could hear hearts pumping as if they were on board.
"Flight" doesn't always inspire such excitement, but it always entertains thanks to a star who always delivers.
Cast: Denzel Washington,
Don Cheadle, John
Tulsa, Starworld 20
Running time: 2
hours, 18 minutes
Rated: R (drug and
nudity and an
a scale of zero to
Original Print Headline: Denzel delivers in role of alcoholic pilot
Michael Smith 918-581-8479
Denzel Washington stars as Capt. Whip Whitaker in "Flight," an airline pilot who, after an act of heroism, is outed as being drunk on the job. Paramount Pictures/Courtesy