An actor playing against type often leads to surprising results. Whether it’s Jim Carrey’s foray in to drama or James Franco’s random comedic flights, an actor expanding their cinematic strengths rarely fails to entertain. Denzel Washington, one of the most charismatic and compelling performers of the last 25 years, is a prime example of an actor eradicating audience expectations. Throughout the late 80’s and 90’s, Denzel was film’s stoic good guy. Realistically, he could do no wrong. Yet, for as lovable as Denzel was, he never really broke the mold he established for himself. That is until the bankable actor took wildly different turns in He Got Game and Training Day, with the latter being a film that showed a dangerously combustible side that Denzel had burrowed deep within his soul. The black abyss swallowed whatever goodwill Denzel harvested for the better part of twenty years. Over the last five or so years, Denzel continued to reshape his angelic image into a brooding badass that is often tough to root for. His latest film, Flight, provides him with another role that distances him from the monochromatic, wholly likable characters that litter his past films.
In Flight, a film that finds director Robert Zemeckis revitalizing his interest in live action filmmaking after failing to generate worthwhile animated films, Denzel plays a troubled pilot fueled by an unquenchable thirst for alcohol. His character, Whip Whittaker, needs alcohol like a fish needs water. The alcohol, which acts a suppressant for his decaying family life, often doubles as a tool to control the excessive amount of nose candy he snorts. If there was ever a man in need of rehab, it would be Whip. As fate would have it, Whip’s chemical dependency goes from sad to ironic on one faithful morning. Drunk and in no condition to fly, Whip takes the reigns of a plane destined to fail. Whip’s unmatched talent gets his plane through a dangerous storm, but he can’t circumvent an unforeseen mechanical error that forces his plane to uncontrollably nosedive. Whit’s unshakeable presence is impressive in an emergency situation, but it’s his inebriation that relieves him of inaction and inhibition. Because of his chemical freedom, Whit lands his commercial airliner with only a handful of casualties. Miraculous would be an understated word to describe Whit’s ballsy move.
As is the case with any airliner crash, the plane and its crew are meticulously investigated to understand how such a tragedy could occur. Suddenly, a hero becomes a target of inquisitions, and a cover-up of excessive drinking becomes inevitable. From media hounds to defense attorneys, Whip’s broken life faces intense scrutiny, pushing him further in to a cold, bottomless bottle. Denzel’s charm relieves his character from our disdain, but doesn’t entirely rid him of his demons. Ferociously arrogant when he’s drunk and challenged by his peers, Denzel is fearless when it comes to scenes that paint Whip as an asshole. Denzel refuses to spare truth in favor of an entirely likeable character. Counteracting the edge Denzel gives Whip are scenes of sheepish vulnerability, where drunken stupors unearth a life once forgotten. As a matter of fact, outside of the film’s lone impressive set piece, Flight is about a man’s inability to get around the wind.
Unfortunately, director Zemeckis doesn’t seem to know how he wants to treat Whip: Is he a cool, suave womanizer or an infuriating person that desperately needs help? Zemeckis certainly stages moments of brevity for Whip, especially the ending, but he also correlates Whip’s chemical indulgences with stylistic camera flourishes and “cool” music. These contradictory tones make it hard to ultimately latch onto the film’s larger theme of redemption. Further undermining the film’s ability to sell its themes and polarizing lead character is Zemeckis’ lack of subtlety. From on the nose song choices, most notably songs about ‘feeling good’ when Whip recedes from sobriety, to scenes involving Whip’s vacant family life, Zemeckis’ beats us over the head with the obvious. When we’re not being bludgeoned with overtly symbolic cues, Flight fails to entertain or enlighten with its various subplots, most of which feel understated when compared to Denzel’s efforts. Granted, they’re designed as revelatory moments for Whip’s enduring chemical problems, but the emotional resonance present is a testament to Denzel’s acting more than the script and direction. If not for Denzel’s performance, Flight would be a tonally spastic film with only one tremendous sequence to its credit. Fortunately for Zemeckis, Denzel lifts Flight when it should probably be grounded.