And this is just what he does, after a night of drunken debauchery with a hot flight attendant (Nadine Velazquez). Hauling his carcass out of bed with the aid of a generous line of coke, he just makes it in time to take off for Atlanta the next morning, keeping his hangover at bay with the vodka he has smuggled on board in a carton of orange juice. Putting the aircraft in automatic mode, to the horror of his church-going co-pilot Ken (Biran Geraghty), he dozes off, to be dragged from his stupor by a bitch of a storm – intensified by a sudden mechanical failure. Despite his wretched state, Whip takes over manual control and – cool as you like – manages to make an epic emergency landing by literally coming in upside down. Six lives are lost, but ninety-six are saved, thanks to Whip’s astonishing expertise. Full of nail-biting suspense, this sequence is also a technical marvel.
Since earning his wings in GLORY, MALCOLM X and THE HURRICANE and Best Actor Oscar for TRAINING DAY in 2001, Denzel Washington mainly devoted himself to a series of action-adventures (e.g. SAFE HOUSE, UNSTOPPABLE) which, although relative commercial successes, certainly represented no stretch for his acting skill – with the exception, perhaps, of his perceptive performance in AMERICAN GANGSTER (2007). The role of Whip Whitaker in FLIGHT, however, finally challenges his acting abilities – and he meets it with flying colors.
It might be said that the movie slows down – it is a full 136 minutes – and goes into a tailspin after its dynamic opening, but the point of the film is the moral dilemma it represents, even if it takes a bit too long to get there.
Although Whip is hailed as a hero, there is nonetheless an official inquiry. Six people have, after all, lost their lives, and somebody has to pay. Will it be the airline – due to the technical malfunction – or the pilots union, due to Whip’s possible malfeasance? He has performed an incredible feat of flying skill, proved by the fact that at least ten other pilots have failed to replicate it in simulations. But ironically enough, instead of taking it as a warning and deciding to curb his self-destructive tendencies, the incident has just the opposite effect. He feels superhuman, indestructible, and goes on a celebratory bender. Nothing can touch Whip Whitaker – no matter how much alcohol or drugs he consumes. In complete denial, he refuses to even admit he has a problem, despite his ruined marriage and estranged son. He meets and beds Nicole (Kelly Reily), an ex-junkie, who talks him into trying rehab, but very quickly falls off the wagon and this affair, too, goes the way of all the rest.
The investigation takes its inevitable course. Fearing huge cash penalties, both the airline and the pilots union are determined to cover up the affair and a smart attorney (Don Cheadle) is hired to defend Whip’s actions, including the high level of alcohol found in his bloodstream after the crash. At the hearing, however, public prosecutor (Melissa Leo) will have none of it. Someone must be taken to account for the loss of life and Whip is called to the stand to testify. He arrives late in the courtroom the morning after a suicidal binge, only making it with the aid of his loyal dealer Harling, (a creepily-funny performance by John Goodman) – always available to help him out of a self-inflicted jam. Whip’s testimony is the highlight of the film and I won’t spoil it for you. Suffice it to say, producer/director Robert Zemeckis has coaxed a haunting performance from Washington, nominated for an Oscar, as well as a SAG award for this performance, with a Golden Globe win already under his belt. John Gatins’ script is also an Oscar nominee for best original screenplay.
FLIGHT has already recouped its $31 million estimated budget almost threefold, grossing $96.1 mill. In the US since its early last November and is still to open in many major territories.
FLIGHT (USA 2012); Running time: 138 min; Distributors/Release date; Paramount Pictures/2.November, 2012 (US) / StudioCanal, 24.January, 2013 (Germany); Director: Robert Zemeckis; Writer: John Gatins; Cast: Denzel Washington; Nadine Valesquez, Don Cheadle, John Goodman, Biran Geraghty, Kelly Reily, Bruce Greemwood; Cinematorgapher: Don Burgess; Music: Alan Silvestri