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Denzel Washington Makes “Flight” Soar

November 12, 2012

By John C.

At the beginning of Flight, Whip Whittaker (Denzel Washington) wakes up drunk in a hotel suite, with Katerina Marquez (Nadine Velazquez) naked beside him.  He is the pilot for Southjet Airlines and she is a flight attendant.  Whip does a line of cocaine to shock his system out of the alcoholic haze, heading to the airport and boarding the plane for a flight from Orlando to Atlanta.

This is just the opening scene of Flight, a provocative drama that takes a fearless look at extreme addiction.  The story of the film starts when the plane begins to malfunction while up in the air and Whip successfully lands the aircraft in a field, waking up in a hospital having saved 96 of the 102 souls on board.  The media immediately sees him as an American hero, but the toxicology reports threaten to put him in jail for having alcohol and cocaine in his system at the time of the flight.  His lawyer (Don Cheadle) wants to prove his innocence, even if it means forcing him to continue living a lie.

Although there’s only so far you can go without actually facing your problems, as Whip starts to learn from Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a fellow addict and romantic interest who is trying to turn her life around.  But Harling Mays (John Goodman) is an enabler to his addiction, and there is still the temptation of the bottle, which means that the pilot has an uphill battle to finally change his life.  The film has also proven to be a big hit with mature audiences since it was released on November 2nd, opening in second place with $24.9 million and scoring third at the box office over the weekend with a still impressive take of $15.1 million.  This not only bodes well for the Oscar chances of Flight, but also proves to other studios that mature dramas for adults can have crossover appeal into the mainstream.

This is the first live action film that Robert Zemeckis has directed since Cast Away in 2000, and he is in full command of the technical elements behind Flight.  The plane crash itself is a harrowing sequence that puts us right on board the doomed aircraft.  When the plane goes upside down, so does the camera, and we feel the same dizziness and claustrophobia that is felt by the passengers.  The cinematography is striking throughout the film, including a haunting scene that takes place during the night in a hotel room.  The soundtrack is another impressive element, with the perfectly timed use of classic soul and rock songs often coming from within a scene as the characters wear headphones or turn up the stereo.

The screenplay by John Gatins offers a compelling look at crippling addiction, allowing the characters to consistently be pushed over the edge, without compromising a powerful message of hope in the last few scenes.  Much of this realism comes from the fact that John Gatins based elements of the story upon his own alcohol abuse in the past, and there is a fearless honesty that shines through the film.  The script also brings up themes of spirituality and faith, particularly during a memorable encounter in the hospital with a terminal cancer patient (James Badge Dale).  At first the single scene with this character might seem like something out of an earlier draft of the script, but upon greater reflection it becomes clear it is a pivotal moment that is absolutely integral to the themes of the story.

There have been numerous performances that have stood out this year, and the Best Actor Oscar race is already quickly becoming one of the tightest in recent memory.  The excellent performances of Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln, John Hawkes in The Sessions, Joaquin Phoenix in The Master, Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook and Logan Lerman in The Perks of Being a Wallflower are already personal favourites, and Denzel Washington proudly joins this list of contenders with Flight.  The actor delivers stunning work that is both tragic and nuanced, while always being completely watchable.  Even as his character descends deeper and deeper into addiction, we just can’t take our eyes off of him.

I’m a big fan of The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol, two of the motion capture films that Robert Zemeckis branched out to direct over the last decade.  But it also feels good to have the force behind such classics as Back to the Future and Forrest Gump back in the live action field.  With a gripping moral dilemma at the heart of its screenplay, Flight is a searing look at extreme addiction, that is carried effortlessly by an excellent performance from Denzel Washington.

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