Magazine article Variety

Washington Soars in Turbulent Tale

Magazine article Variety

Washington Soars in Turbulent Tale

Article excerpt

FILM: FLIGHT (PARAMOUNT)

Director: Robert Zemeckis; Cast Denzel Washington, Don Cheadte, Kelly ReHly

Washington soars in turbulent tale

Audiences buckle up for one kind of movie but end up strapped in for another in "Flight," director Robert Zemeckis' welcome return to live-action after a dozen years away. This serious-minded drama steers a horrifying nightmare at 20,000 feet into one mans turbulent personal struggle with his drinking problem - and not in the jokey "Airplane!" sense. Denzel Washington is aces as a commercial airline pilot who pulls off a miraculous midair stunt while flying with a 0.24 blood alcohol concentration, only to face his demons on the ground. Pic should soar on all platforms - except inflight, of course.

For most alcoholics, crashlanding a jetliner would qualify as rock bottom - reason enough to quit drinking and seek help. In the case of Capt. Whip Whitaker (Washington), however, it's just the beginning of a battle in which his greatest adversary is himself. Though technically an ensemble piece, "Flight" is as much a one-man showcase as Zemeckis' "Cast Away" was for Tom Hanks.

Back in the land of the living, after a run of performancecapture pictures including "The Polar Express" and "Beowulf," the helmer has embraced a project that depends entirely on the power of the human face - an assignment for which Washington is the perfect co-pilot. Internalizing the angry flame he typically displays onscreen, the star undercuts his own trademark swagger with the suggestion that, for some, such cocky behavior could mask far deeper problems.

Whitaker is flying high, sleeping with a comely stewardess (Nadine Velazquez) and chasing away his morning hangovers with a line of cocaine before stepping into the cockpit, until a mechanical malfunction sends his plane into a nosedive. Judging by the cool and collected way Whitaker handles the situation, he could be the poster boy for high-functioning alcoholism. Attempting to re-create the same scenario on a simulator after the fact, no other pilot could pull off the same maneuver. And yet, had Whitaker not literally been asleep at the wheel when the plane pitched forward, maybe the entire situation could have been avoided, sparing the six Uves lost in his stunning recovery move.

Few events are more visceral to experience onscreen than an airplane crash, and "Flight" ranks alongside "Fearless" and "Alive" in the sheer intensity of its opening act But John Gatins' perceptively original script takes the rest of the story in a far different direction. For the first week or so, Whitaker vows to get sober, raiding every hiding place in his grandfather's Georgia cabin for stashed liquor bottles and pouring them down the drain. It's a symbolic gesture, but one that ultimately represents little more than wasted money for a man so hooked on hooch that within a few scenes, he's sucking down Stoli from a half-gallon jug (while driving).

Enter a number of concerned supporting characters - figures essential to Whitaker's journey and yet dwarfed by the dominant attention Zemeckis pays his deeply conflicted protag, through whose eyes we experience all but an early digressive scene setting up Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a lovely yet self-destructive masseuse. Nicole stands the best chance of getting through to Whitaker, though her trying to save a fellow addict could backfire. …

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