Washington battles addiction in the compelling drama “Flight”

A two-time Academy Award winner, Denzel Washington is one of the best working actors out there today. Although his resume consists of many films within the action genre, his commanding persona and on-screen presence tends to elevate the material no matter what it is. For me, I always love it when Washington veers more toward a dramatic picture because in a good drama he can really show us what an actor of his caliber can do. Films such as Courage Under Fire and The Hurricane are fine recent examples. In director Robert Zemeckis’ new drama Flight, Washington delivers one of the best performances of his career as a very flawed man with a serious, crippling addiction.

In Flight, Washington plays Whip Whitaker, a commercial airline pilot who in the beginning of the film manages to maneuver his plane full of passengers to safety after the plane malfunctions. Although there were a few casualties from the crash, Whitaker is deemed a hero for his efforts. It would seem that this would be the end of the story, but Whitaker hides a debilitating personal struggle underneath it all: he’s a severe alcoholic and cocaine user. In fact, the opening of the film illustrates how he piloted the plane right after a night of drinking and coke snorting. In short, he was high when he saved the plane (and I’m not talking about high as in flying at 35,000-some feet high).

To say that Whitaker is a flawed character would be an understatement, and it is within flawed characters such as this in which actors really need to pull out all the right stops in order to accurately portray and depict them. Washington is one of those actors who we can count on to deliver and he does so without question in Flight. This film portrays very vividly Whitaker’s struggles with his addiction and Washington pulls out of his audience from beginning to end a deep sympathy for his character and his harrowing plight. We’ve seen many films about addiction and a character’s struggles with it and while some actors aim for overreaching and overacting for attention, Washington’s performance here is very grounded and genuine. This isn’t the “heroic” Washington we’ve seen many times over in a bulk of his movies—this is a Washington portraying a personally damaged man in a very brave and true-to-life way.

Piloting the film as director is Zemeckis, who has made his triumphant return to live-action filmmaking here with Flight after over ten years away (to focus on stop-motion animated films like The Polar Express). The film also consists of some excellent supporting work from Bruce Greenwood (as Whip’s union representative), Don Cheadle (as his lawyer), Kelly Reilly (as a woman also battling addiction) and a scene-stealing John Goodman (as his drug supplier). But in the end, it’s Washington’s performance that commands our attention and sympathy and with an actor of his caliber and stature, we are in excellent hands. Washington should deservedly be in the race for the Best Actor Oscar in a few months’ time for his compelling performance here. Flight comes highly recommended and is one of the best films of the year.

4 ½ out of 5 stars

About Flight:

A commercial airline pilot saves a flight full of passengers from crashing, but a resulting investigation into the plane’s malfunctions uncovers something troubling about the hero pilot.

For more on Flight, visit the Paramount Web site.

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