By Dwight Brown
NNPA Film Critic
Grass. Booze. Cocaine. Veteran pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) hits the drug-abuse trifecta. And that’s just hours before he straps himself into the cockpit of a 50-ton jet, with 96 passengers and six flight crew members aboard.
On the plane’s ascent from the Orlando, Fla. airport, he battles treacherous weather with blinding storm clouds and hurricane-like winds; his co-pilot gets so scared he nearly wets his pants. Fasten your seatbelts.
Washington often displays anger in his films (Training Day, Hurricane). It’s almost like being perturbed is his pet emotion and he finds roles to suit his disposition, or he gravitates to perpetually irked characters. Either way, when you fathom a Denzel Washington movie, you are likely to envision an angry persona. It is refreshing, almost novel, to watch him play a role that is far more nuanced and emotionally and psychologically multifaceted.
As the plane levels off, past the bad weather, Whip snoozes and the co-pilot (Brian Geraghty) calms down. The head flight attendant (Tamara Tunie) and her staff are about to serve drinks and snacks when there’s a malfunction. In seconds, a dozing Whip awakes and attempts to rescue his airliner from an abrupt nosedive and certain disaster. In most films, the daring flight alone would be a movie. In this instance, it is the aftermath, the retelling of the events, that causes enough consternation and drama to beget a compelling storyline that deals with values, morals, lying, falsehoods, drug addiction, alcoholism, family strife, and subterfuge.
The germ of an idea for the script came from the inquisitive screenwriter John Gatins, who had a fascination and fear of flying that lead him to research airplane disasters and rescues, such as the “Miracle on the Hudson” incident where Captain Chesley Burnett “Sully” Sullenberger, III guided US Airways Flight 1549 to a safe landing on New York’s Hudson River. The writer was also wrestling with inner demons, and hence the great personal conflict he projects on to Whip, who is in a state of denial that has cost him his marriage, the respect of his son, possibly his career and maybe a prison sentence.
Gatins mines the depths of addiction and life-threatening illness in the pursuit of a treatise on life and its frailties. Whip, a heroin addict (Kelly Reilly) and a cancer victim clandestinely meet in a stairwell in a hospital to smoke cigarettes. They size each other up and slowly reveal themselves. Cancer victim: “Wish I could harness this feeling I have about how precious life is.” That life philosophy and the crash are a catalyst for the lead character to confront his out-of-control existence.
Director Robert Zemeckis has channeled his talents towards animated movies recently (A Christmas Carol), but this script brings him back to the live action world (Forrest Gump) and to a project that focuses on another soul-searching male character. His no-frills direction of the dramatic and romantic scenes is solid, but not extraordinary. The moments in the plane however, when Whip flips the jet over and back again, and the subsequent crash are a marvel to behold. His steady hand, overall, prevails. But the film’s direction, editing, camerawork, special effects and catchy musical soundtrack that dips into ‘60s and ‘70s classics (“What’s Going On,” “Gimme Shelter”) stand in the large shadow of Washington’s stunning portrayal of Whip.
Washington smolders throughout the entire film. The turbulent emotion that’s under the surface is more powerful than the heated outbursts. It gets under your skin. It troubles you. How does a human being reconcile devastating addiction with hero worship? How does he come to an understanding of who he is when his disillusioned life is chained to a dope dealer (John Goodman), casual sex with his staff and a romance with a heroin addict?
The script hands Washington a plum, complex role, but he takes it further than most actors could. The swagger. The debauchery. The remorse. He’s belligerent, testy, defensive, humble, fearful, and confused. By the time Washington has shaped the character, you are riveted to Whip, dying to know if he can scam his way out of an incriminating legal inquiry or succumb? Washington’s thespian magic takes you down a road you won’t veer off until it comes to a dead end.
Tamara Tunie, as the conflicted flight attendant is perfect. Don Cheadle, as the crafty lawyer who tries to tame the beast, displays the perfect mix of cunning determination and righteous indignation. John Goodman as the dope-peddling best buddy with gut-busting laughs and a sheer disdain for anything conventional just may receive a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his role. Better yet, Washington could take the Best Actor Oscar trophy home. He gives a four-star performance in a three-star movie.