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Cinema Signal: If it's Denzell, it's a go! MOBILE: |
. "Flight"

This is one of the more dizzying character studies I've seen. The first scene, in which the subject of our study, seasoned pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington), employed by a generic regional airlines, is waking up on a day he's scheduled for a flight. Arising from his bed ahead of him is hot, naked stewardess Katerina (Nadine Velasquez) who has no more modesty before the camera than she has clothes. But, dizzying as this display of frontal nudity is, it's not a commercial ploy -- the scene sets the stage for uncompromising realism.

Whitaker is rising out of a night of all the addiction subgroups: booze, drugs and sex and, like most addicts, he's able to get himself together so that, by the time he arrives at work, he shows no outward signs of anything that could be interpreted as a disability to command an airliner. He's his usual bantering, confident self. No one notices that in the pilot compartment he's spiking his orange juice with alcohol. Not even his first-time co-pilot Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty) shows awareness of it.

The story outline is simple: a major event followed by a multi-hour detailing of its repercussions. For me, so much time in the company of an addict isn't comfortable, and it makes me look for an escape hatch. But, as it's Denzel Washington we're flying with, I'm in no need of a parachute. His ability to keep us strapped to our seats through every minute of a deeply troubled soul who fights and succumbs to demons is worth the price of the ticket.

The story isn't based on a book but, rather, on a real life event that took place in 2001 when Canadian Captain Robert Piche skillfully glided a fuel-less Airbus 330 to a safe landing, saving 306 passengers from a certain crash. He became an overnight hero, lavished in public adulation. But, as you can't tell a person by his best one-day event, his heroism was just a part of a general makeup that allowed a journalist, probing below the surface, to expose a criminal past and sordid personal life. For some people who are flying below the sobriety test radar, an act of heroism is about the worst thing that could happen to you.

Which mirrors the story here of a personable high achiever with critical failures who, after a dizzying ride through a turbulent storm, saves a planeload of people by figuring out a way to pull out of an uncontrollable dive by rolling the plane when it's under 1,000 feet, headed for certain disaster and performing a successful crash landing in a field. The concept is real, though it has nothing to do with Piche's actions. It's the work of screenwriter John Gatins ("Real Steel") that takes us through a shock of an airplane's inevitable destruction turned into a miracle -- by a pilot who is under the influence but not malfunctioning. A big check for originality.

Amidst the pilot's failures, including his intransigence in cooperating with his friend Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood) and attorney Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle) to legally survive an NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) investigation that exposes his alcohol level while in flight, in the disappointing Whitaker there resides a man who has a vein of decency. Call it a code of honor, a bottom line. Whatever it is, it's a virtue that awaits us in the final moments when push comes to shove and his line of morality is reached. This moment in this man's life rewards all the time invested in putting up with a helpless personality and a too-long running time.

Red-headed Kelly Reilly is gorgeous and splendid as the beaten-down Nicole Maggen who holds out some hope, as a recovering alcoholic, for our hero's rehab. Leave it to actor John Goodman to play the over-colorful wingman in our pilot's hours of need. A master of this sort of role, he provides what relief of tension there is in the plotline's proceedings.

Director Robert Zemeckis' ("Forrest Gump") work with actors and technical staff is nothing short of outstanding on all fronts. Worthy of special mention is the visual immediacy of D.P. Don Burgess' ("Source Code") challenging camerawork in very fluid circumstances.

For some time, now, Washington has been working at the highest level of the actor's art in defining the depths and dimensions of his characters. From "The Bone Collector" of 1999 to his great Walter Garber of "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3" to "Unstoppable" to "Safe House," there's no movie he's been in that hasn't profited immensely by his central interpretation.

In "Flight," he spins for us the wreckage of a life strained by the tension between achievement and defeat, a person who thinks that he can master the odds. But, the mastery is in the actor's fine portrayal.

Item of interest: In an interview, a couple of producers reveal that "the primary airplane in the film is a pastiche of several existing commercial airliners so as to not ID a particular one. Also, no promotional consideration was paid by any of the alcohol brands shown in the movie; they decided to feature beer, wine and hard liquor brands for one shot each so as to avoid "endorsing" any of them."

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                                              ~~  Jules Brenner  


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Denzell Washington is pilot Whip Whitaker
Arriving to work: stoned.

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