The one thing that Denzel Washington does in nearly every film is bring a level of quality and gravitas to any production. Even in a film like Out of Time Washington raises a film’s quality with his sheer presence; he’s generally so good, and has such a presence, that even mediocre films seem better with him in it. And the better he is the better a mediocre at best film feels like. And that’s what Flight really is: a mediocre film with a transcendent performance from one of the best actors of his generation.
It’s a fairly simple premise. Whip Whitaker (Washington) is a pilot with a serious drug and alcohol problem. When we first meet him he’s been up all night on a bender with Katerina (Nadine Velasquez), his flight attendant girlfriend, snorting some cocaine to get himself able to fly a plane for an hour from Florida to Georgia. When mechanical failures put the plane into a tailspin, destined to crash land, Whitaker manages to pull off a miracle landing when nearly every other pilot would’ve crashed and killed everyone aboard.
It’s a spectacular scene and the opening thirty minutes of the film are amongst the best opening acts of the year. It’s a white knuckle moment and despite the fact that we know going in that Whip is going to come out of this Zemeckis has crafted the scene so well that we think it’s possible that the plane will end up crashing. Robert Zemeckis has crafted this opening, from the end of Whitaker’s night of sex and drugs to the crash itself, that everything we need to know about the film we can get from this scene. Whitaker shouldn’t be flying that plane, and we’re scared with him in it, but there’s a veteran presence to him that you can feel in the flight. He’s been around the block and knows what he’s doing.
Problems arise, however, when the crash gets investigated and Whitaker’s blood work turns up the illicit substances in his system. With federal agencies and lawsuits flying, Whitaker is a hero to many but an out of control addict to those who know him well. This includes a new girlfriend (Kelly Reilly) with a substance abuse issue of her own. As Whitaker’s life descends into substance abuse even further as he gets closer and closer to his date with destiny (and the Transportation Safety Board).
This is fairly innocuous film about an addict hitting bottom; there’s nothing new or different that Zemeckis is pulling off. And with any other actor in the lead this would be forgettable after the film’s opening. But Denzel Washington single handedly puts this film on his back and carries it to heights it shouldn’t get anywhere near. This is easily the best performance of the year so far and it’ll take something brilliant for Washington to be denied an Oscar for Best Actor.
Washington has a handful of gears in his acting arsenal; when it comes to being consistent he’s the best in his profession. He may never usually hit a peak like Daniel Day-Lewis but his regular output of a film or two per year at a high level is something not too many actors can hit. And even Washington on cruise control would make this enjoyable. Whitaker is his type of character, a man hitting rock bottom after a great professional triumph, and this might be one of the finest performances of his career.
Whitaker is a difficult character because he’s not merely someone with a drinking problem, or a drug problem. He’s a full blown addict, lying to everyone (including himself) to prevent potential jail time. It’s a difficult role because Whip is not a very likeable person in any aspect. Even Denzel, with all his presence and charisma, could have a difficult time at finding the true depths of the character. This is the face of addiction that Hollywood has a hard time showing in any meaningful fashion; this is a man willing to sacrifice everything and say anything to keep his current lifestyle. The difficulty is off the charts in trying to fashion a meaningful look at an addict; it’s easier to make it almost unintentionally hilarious and Washington avoids this.
This is the depths of addiction juxtaposed against the power of a heroic moment. It’s not that good of a film but this is Denzel Washington’s Milk: a brilliant, game-changing performance in a pedestrian film.
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Writer: John Gatins
Notable Cast: Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, Bruce Greenwood, Don Cheadle, John Goodman, Melissa Leo, Nadine Velazquez