This may be the most heavy-duty, and finest, Oscar-worthy performance yet from Denzel Washington.
“Flight” has a dual meaning here. It’s about a pilot named Whip Whitaker (Washington), and it’s also about a man who tries to flee his personal demons. It is about addiction, and it’s every bit as hard-hitting as “The Days of Wine and Roses,” “Trainspotting” and a contemporary, but little-seen, movie called “Smashed.”
If you’re used to the warm and fuzzy Washington from “Unstoppable,” brace yourself before you take in the character he plays here. This isn’t far from his “Training Day” mode. Whip is a conflicted man who refuses to acknowledge he has a problem he can’t control.
We first see Whip in a hotel room he shares with his girlfriend (Nadine Velazquez). They’ve been partying all night — into the wee hours of the morning, in fact. Whip is the captain of a plane taking passengers from Florida to Atlanta during a storm.
During one of the most hair-raising sequences this year, Whip manages the plane through a catastrophe. Many people are injured — some grievously, in fact — yet all but six passengers survive the crash. His colleagues are in awe of Whip’s skills. We wonder as we watch: Would Whip have been able to steer the plane so successfully had he been sober? Or was the survival of his passengers an act of God?
Washington plays Whip as a flawed hero who carefully tries to determine to whom he should lie: The head of his union? His ex-wife and son? Himself? We see him wrestle with taking a drink and the mocking dependence he develops upon a woman he meets in the hospital (Kelly Reilly, “Sherlock Holmes”) who plays a pivotal role in the decisions he makes.
The acting is good all around from this top-notch cast that includes Bruce Greenwood and Don Cheadle. John Goodman deserves a best supporting actor nod for portraying Whip’s drug-dealer best friend Harling Mays, an obnoxious, confident “professional” who has no use for boundaries of any kind.
I doubt there are many people reading this whose lives have not been touched in some way by an addiction, whether it’s their own or the challenge faced by a loved one. You are bound to see someone you know in Whip, someone to whom you will be able to relate. You may not like him at every turn, but you’ll see him take actions that will be familiar to you.