The last few films starring Denzel Washington have mostly been action
films. Besides the physical stunts, I don't think they have required
Washington to really stretch his acting muscles. The emotions and
character beats in things like Safe House and Unstoppable
are ones that Washington could do in his sleep. This film is the first
in probably a decade that provides Washington with a challenge.
Washington plays Captain Whitaker nicknamed "Whip" who is probably the
best airline pilot in the country. It's most likely because he comes
from a family of pilots, including a father who was a Tuskegee airman.
His family also owns a crop dusting company just outside Atlanta,
Georgia, and ever since Whip was a boy, instead of a bicycle, his
training wheels were to a small, Cessna crop duster plane.
Oscar-winning director Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump and Contact) takes the viewer into that cockpit and crafts a thrilling 10-minute sequence in the pilot's seat. It starts with a rocky take-off and ends with a tense series of images, including a huge, commercial plane flipping inverted and crashing into a church. Zemeckis' staging, his editing and his use of sound or lack thereof make this plane's descent one of the best ever depicted in cinema. It's terrifying yet exhilarating. It's Zemeckis in top form.
With this inciting incident, the stage is set for Denzel Washington to give what has got to be his best performance since Training Day (2001). The first time you feel the full weight of that performance is after the plane crash when Whip is in the hospital, pulled slightly injured from the wreckage. Whip is told about the fatalities, including Katerina, played by Nadine Velazquez, a stewardess whom Whip was intimate, very intimate, the night prior. Whip's left eye was scratched in the wreckage, so he has a bandage over it. Zemeckis frames Whip's reactions so that it's all observed through his right eye, in close-up, and it's clear, even with some help from makeup, that Washington has more acting ability in his right eye than many actors have in their whole bodies.
Washington is certainly more exposed than he's ever been, even more so than in Training Day. For starters, you see Washington's naked ass. I don't remember the last time that the two-time, Oscar-winner showed this much skin. Washington is his most vulnerable and personal here. In many of his previous, Washington plays characters who are so in control and who seemingly know what move to make from moment to moment. Here, Washington plays Whip as desperate and overwhelmed following the crash.
At first, he's kind of lost. He's almost like a little boy alone in a wilderness. He goes from anxious to angry to apologetic to alighted all throughout the course of the film and we're with him every step of the way. He spends a good chunk of screen time by himself and he of course demands attention, but Washington is at his supreme when he can bounce off other actors.
Those other actors comprise a great supporting cast. Many of whom are funny and moving in all of their moments. Bruce Greenwood plays Charlie Anderson, the union representative. Don Cheadle plays Hugh Lang, the Chicago lawyer. John Goodman plays Harlan Maze, a jovial drug dealer and Whip's best friend. There's also great, brief performances from Melissa Leo (The Fighter) and Brian Geraghty (The Hurt Locker) as well as Kelly Reilly (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows) who plays Nicole, a heroin addict who Whip develops a brief romance and Tamara Tunie (Law & Order: Special Victims Unit) who plays Margaret, the head flight attendant. James Badge Dale (Shame and The Grey) is unrecognizable in his one scene and Peter Gerety who has been acting for over 30 years in tons of TV shows is superb in his one scene as Mr. Carr.
On the film's surface, it seems to be another story of a man dealing with addiction, dealing with alcoholism, but the resolution of the story is not with Whip going to rehab or getting therapy. The resolution of this film unpacks what was at the core of this film. Zemeckis and writer John Gatins (Coach Carter and Real Steel) don't hit you over the head with it, but you see that Whip is who is because of his father and that relationship echoes and reverberates subtly as an almost unnoticeable wind current. The filmmakers accentuate it in key moments, but, by the end, the point is made that this film is not only about the connection between father and son but also the choices people make that do affect others.
Five Stars out of Five.
Rated R for drug and alcohol abuse, language, sexuality/nudity and an intense action scene.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 18 mins.