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Washington soars to new heights in 'Flight'

11:48 PM, Nov. 1, 2012


Star rating:■■■
Rated: R for drug and alcohol abuse, language, sexuality/nudity and an intense action sequence.


There is something in almost all of Denzel Washington’s performances, a calm in the midst of a storm, that separates him from the rank and file, that elevates him to a status among the truly gifted actors of his generation (or any other).

Take, for instance, Washington in “American Gangster,” when his character is discussing bringing heroin into the U.S. from Vietnam with a Vietnamese general. How, the general wonders, does he plan to ship the drugs? You don’t need to worry about that, Washington assures him. And how will you keep from being caught? You don’t need to worry about that, either. It’s quiet, it’s powerful, it’s great.

There is an assurance there, a remarkable confidence in the face of just about everything. We see it again in “Flight,” Robert Zemeckis’s new film, his first live-action movie since “Cast Away” in 2000.

It occurs when the plane Washington’s character, Whip Whitaker, is flying, starts to fall apart. Nothing is working, and the plane is heading straight for the ground. Whitaker is about to try some crazy stuff to land the plane, but before he does that, he calls in his most-trusted flight attendant. He needs her to perform some crucial tasks, but first he calmly instructs her to speak into the black box. What’s your son’s name? Say something to him. And she does, a loving message that may be her last. With that taken care of, he flips the plane upside down to slow its ascent and lands it, if roughly, in what has to be one of the most-harrowing plane-crash scenes ever filmed.

Oh. He’s also drunk. And high. Which is probably the only way he would have attempted such an audacious, dangerous feat, and maybe why he was able to pull it off.

Funny, that. “Flight” seems for a long time as if it will study that dichotomy. No one would argue that the risk was worth the reward, but … was it? Alas, the film turns into something different, something a little less satisfying, something a little more pat.

But Washington is brilliant throughout. It’s one of the best performances of his career, and that’s saying something.

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To reveal that Whitaker is zonked gives away nothing; the film begins with the dregs of his all-night sex-and-drugs-and-booze session with one of his flight attendants. Then it’s on to the plane, for a short flight that is first menaced by bad weather, then by the mechanical malfunctions that threaten to crash it. Roused from a nap, (the plane is on auto-pilot for most of the trip, as Whitaker’s straight-arrow co-pilot mostly casts disapproving glances his way), Whitaker goes into full-on hero mode.

But not everyone survives.

This means that, while Whitaker is a hero for saving almost everyone, “someone has to pay,” as Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle), the attorney for the pilot’s union, says later. Lang and Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood), the pilots’ union representative, want to help Whitaker out of the mess that is inevitably coming his way, but Whitaker, like most drunks, is his own worst enemy.

He’s helped somewhat by Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a heroin addict he meets in the hospital in a crucial scene moderated by a dying cancer patient (James Badge Dale). Whitaker hides out from the media at his late father’s farm, alternately trying to get sober and getting sloshed, the drunkard’s lament. He knows a day of reckoning is coming, a hearing with a no-nonsense NTSB official (Melissa Leo) who smells a rat. The question is whether he has the self-control not to destroy himself before testifying.

It’s a little disappointing that Washington and Cheadle don’t have more screen time together. John Goodman’s scenes, as Whitaker’s friend and sometime dealer, are over-the-top enough to seem out of place in what is, aside from the boffo crash sequence, a relatively introspective film. Reilly is good, her character never judging, never strident, in plenty of pain herself. The script, by John Gatins, is where the film doesn’t fall short exactly, but doesn’t quite reach its potential.

That’s not true of Washington, however. This is a tremendous performance. It’s when he is on-screen (most of the time) that Zemeckis’ film really, if you’ll excuse the expression, takes flight.

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