By Eleanor Ringel Cater
Denzel Washington’s new film, “Flight” isn’t about the non-stop Atlanta-to-Denver sort of flight. It’s about the frenzied flight from reality that every addict takes with every snort and swallow.
Washington does play a pilot — cocky Capt. “Whip” Whitaker, who can fly anything with wings and a cockpit.
Even when he’s coked to the gills and coasting on some well-spiked orange juice.
In the much-heralded opening sequence, he makes a miraculous Captain Scully-style crash landing, losing six lives, but saving ninety-six others. He is a hero…until the toxicology report comes in.
Now he’s Captain Scuzzy and the airline, the pilots’ union and the plane manufacturer are dithering over who’s to blame. Even a miracle has consequences when money is involved.
The rest of the movie stays on the ground as director Robert Zemeckis takes us through the collateral damage caused by Whitaker’s condition — damage to himself as much as anyone else.
Fortunately, most of this revolves around Washington’s performance, which is terrific. This is a movie star moving into darker territory. One friend likened it to Paul Newman in “The Verdict,” another tale of addiction and redemption.
“The Verdict” is the overall better movie. “Flight’s” script takes some ill-advised detours, especially a Lifetime Movie subplot about another addict (female, gorgeous, troubled) who collides with Washington in a hospital stairwell, when both sneak out of their rooms for a smoke.
But Washington keeps his eye — and his performance — on the tight wire that is Whip’s daily life. This is a more subtle portrayal than his flashy Oscar-winning turn as a corrupt cop in “Training Day.” Washington understands the deviousness of addicts. For instance, it’s not just having a double vodka and orange juice on-board before take-off. It’s the nasty little thrill of pouring it secretly while giving the passengers the folksy routine about “relax and enjoy your flight.”
Washington doesn’t work in a vacuum, either. “Flight” surrounds him with fine turns — Don Cheadle as a sleek but honorable attorney; John Goodman as a showy drug-dealer; and Bruce Greenwood as an old pal and fellow pilot put in a tough position by Washington’s demons.
Zemeckis is, I’m afraid, a square. His best-known movie is “Forrest Gump,” which, love it or loathe it, is about as square as a movie can get. Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with being square (I’ve got a good streak myself). But the result is a risk-averse movie.
I would’ve felt a whole lot better about “Flight” in general if it had dared to stretch its wings. But Washington is up there in the stratosphere, putting on a helluva show.