After spending most of the last decade laboring over a string of motion-capture CG films I’d prefer to forget, director Robert Zemeckis finally returns to live action this weekend. To his credit, he certainly didn’t tackle an easy project for his return, choosing a challenging drama the likes of which aren’t seen very often in modern multiplexes. He’s also blessed with a fully-committed lead actor in Denzel Washington, but ultimately gets stranded by a perplexing script by screenwriter John Gatins. There’s much to like about the film, particularly the tandem of Zemeckis and Washington, but its abhorrent lead character and his poorly defined motivations keep the project earthbound.
Washington plays ace commercial airline pilot Whip Whitaker, a lifelong functioning alcoholic who manages to maintain his successful career in spite of his propensity for self-destruction. After a typical night-long bender with a flight attendant, he arrives for work still wasted but proceeds to strap into the cockpit and pilot a 100+ person flight through massive turbulence. He also sneaks in three mini bottles of vodka in his morning orange juice partway through the flight. All is well until the plane appears to suffer mechanical failure and enters a steep descent, with Whitaker eventually taking the unorthodox approach of positioning the jet upside down to slow its dive. He lands the plane in a field and saves all but six of the souls on board. Unfortunately, his favorite flight attendant is one of the six. The descent is a thrilling sequence handled with finesse by Zemeckis, and surely the most memorable portion of the film.
Meanwhile, a heroin junkie scores a fix from a porn producer and returns to her seedy apartment to shoot up. Predictably, she overdoses and ends up getting carted off in an ambulance outside her home just as the doomed flight is passing overhead. Why do we care? She has no apparent relation to Whitman, and hence no perceived reason for us to be spending so much time with her. There’s no reason for us to visit the porn set or meet her stereotypical slumlord, as that whole scene could have been cut without impacting the junkie character establishment. Thus begins a string of questionable scenes that hamper the film’s progress.
In the aftermath of the crash, Whitaker ends up in the hospital where he’s promptly visited by his dealer (he likes cocaine in addition to his booze), an entirely too buffoonish John Goodman. He enters the film sauntering down the hospital hallway bigger than life, with a long ponytail, Dude-ish slacker attire, and comedic dialogue entirely out of place immediately following the harrowing crash and overdose scenes. It’s like we’ve suddenly entered a different movie, one I frankly didn’t want to be in. Immediately following this travesty, we get another comedy routine in the hospital stairwell from a terminal cancer patient. Sure, it’s funny, but why is it in this film? The character appears while Whitman and the junkie are meeting for the first time when they’re both sneaking smokes, but there’s no justification for his appearance other than to temporarily lighten the mood of a film that is otherwise demanding to be taken seriously.
After the hospital stay, Whitaker retreats to the safety of his grandfather’s abandoned farm, eschewing his own condo and the media carnival outside as the press attempts to make contact with the hero pilot. Meanwhile, the feds are conducting their investigation into the crash and easily determine that Whitman was inebriated during flight, leading to a dustup between the pilot’s union, the airline, and the authorities that threatens to send Whitman to jail for the rest of his life. So how does he respond to this wake-up call? By continuing his spiral down the bottle, stopping only briefly to rescue the now homeless junkie and take her to his farm. She becomes something of a ray of salvation for him, as she successfully combats her own addiction and attempts to rescue him as well. This isn’t really a feel-good film though, and he’s a hardcore alcoholic, so his empty promises to reform never come true.
The pilot union hires a sharp attorney played by Don Cheadle who successfully kills Whitaker’s damaging toxicology report, leaving only one final hurdle between Whitaker and freedom, a public hearing similar to a congressional review where Whitaker just needs to lie convincingly to get off the hook and enjoy his hero status for the rest of his life. He’s a gifted liar, so this seemingly doesn’t present much of a challenge for him.
I liked seeing Cheadle and Washington playing off each other again for the first time since Cheadle’s breakout performance in Devil in a Blue Dress, although his role here was surprisingly one-dimensional and brief. I also enjoyed seeing two vets of Homicide: Life on the Street in the same production, although not in any scenes together: Melissa Leo as the head of the final review board and Peter Gerety as the good ol’ boy owner of the airline. I didn’t like Washington’s character, so he did his job well. Whitaker is an unrepentant drunk who blows every chance for redemption until the end, and at that point his tipping point is so unbelievable and ill-supported by the weak character development that his confession rings completely hollow. This is entirely the fault of the script, and it comes as no surprise that Gatins was also an alcoholic since he writes the character more as a stubborn success than a spiraling loser. It’s as if he wants us to know that he survived his alcoholism just fine, especially in light of the premise that Whitaker’s drinking had absolutely no detrimental effect on his ability to save the plane. There’s no message to be learned here, and his attempt at a tidy bow to tie up the end just comes off as more laughable than cathartic.
In spite of the significant script deficiencies, I left the film conflicted about whether or not I liked it. Washington is really effective, and Zemeckis gives him space to explore the character with languorous, close-up shots that are in no hurry to dazzle with fancy camerawork or dialogue. We learn the most about the character by just studying Washington’s face as his tightly bottled emotions play out in barely perceptible flickers. Whitaker maintains a relaxed aura of control, even when he’s totally out of control, in both action and emotion. We may not like him, but damn if it isn’t great being given the opportunity to experience him in a mostly mature film that clearly isn’t primarily concerned with immediate box office results.