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Thursday, Nov. 8, 2012 03:30 pm

Washington soars in Flight

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If you look back at the careers of the great screen actors and actresses, you’ll notice that after they’ve successfully established a recognizable persona, they begin to seek ways to break free from it. It must be a bore only playing slight variations of the same role all the time, and any performer worth their salt wants to show they’re more than a one-trick pony. I suspect that’s one of the reasons Denzel Washington agreed to be in Robert Zemeckis’ Flight, a film that contains a lead role fraught with peril and steeped in challenging moments. That the veteran actor succeeds in portraying a substance-abusing pilot is no real surprise. The man is one of the greats of his generation, yet what is startling is not just how far he goes in executing his character’s destructive behavior but how restrained he is in rendering its effects.

Whip Whitaker (Washington) is a respected veteran pilot who can fly a jumbo jet with his eyes closed. He also happens to be a functional alcoholic. It isn’t uncommon for him to start the day snorting a couple of lines of blow in order to wake up from a drunken stupor gotten from a night of drinking. This is the case the morning he’s assigned to pilot a routine flight from Miami to Atlanta; however what ensues is anything but routine. The aircraft malfunctions at 30,000 feet and begins a steep descent. It’s only through Whitaker’s prowess and ingenuity that he’s able to land the plane in an open field, saving nearly everyone on board. However, there are six fatalities, and when a toxicology report comes back showing that the pilot had traces of alcohol and cocaine in his system the day of the flight, his character is called into question.

What follows is an intense period of investigation as the head of the pilot’s union (Bruce Greenwood) and their lawyer (Don Cheadle) attempt to clear Whitaker’s name, though the pilot himself refuses to do any sort of introspection regarding his behavior. As scripted by John Gatins, the film is quite accurate in the way it portrays the sort of behavior an addict engages in to survive. Whitaker’s life is built upon lies constructed to ensure he’s able to continue to drink and use drugs in order to get through the day. The film is unflinching in showing the sort of desperation that sets in for addicts as well as the way their lives ultimately fall apart.

Washington is exceptional without resorting to the sort of histrionics that are often used by others in order to bring an addict to life. He eschews slurring his voice or stumbling about, instead employing a physicality that suggests Whitaker is barely able to stand under the burden he’s shouldering. He conveys a weariness here that’s tragic and it’s to Washington’s great credit that we end up pitying his character instead of despising him. He never lets us forget to convey that Whitaker is a tragic figure, a good talented man who’s smothered by a disease he refuses to understand and is consequently helpless to combat.

It’s good to have Zemeckis back dealing with flesh-and-blood beings after messing about with stop-motion features for over a decade. He hasn’t lost his touch where delivering a compelling tale is concerned with his usual visual flare. While some may argue that the film runs a bit too long and that a subplot that finds Whitaker becoming involved with a fellow addict (Kelly Reilly) who finds the strength to help herself is less than engaging, there’s no denying that Washington delivers a performance for the ages, one that may compel others to seek the help that Whitaker feels he doesn’t deserve.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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