The downward spiral of an addict
Reviewer's rating: 8/10
OSCAR-nominated for his masterful portrayal of a booze-soaked pilot facing a grim awakening, Denzel Washington single-handedly steers director Robert Zemeckis's lesson in substance-led evasion with stunning precision and depth.
As Whip Whittaker, Washington - a front-runner for best actor, having won previously for Training Day and Glory - lets himself go, physically and psychologically, without veering towards stereotype or caricature.
He wakes up in a hotel room with a buxom stewardess (Nadine Velazquez), a beer and a line of coke for clarity - before what should be a routine trip back to Atlanta, where his former wife and son await. When the flight becomes a nightmare, all bets are off.
Or so we think. Crucially, Zemeckis doesn't blame his ace pilot's intoxicated state for the subsequent malfunction and crash that, mercifully, spares all but six on board. There is a fault with the plane. No other pilot, we're told, could have pulled off the terrifying flip manoeuvre that initially makes Whittaker the people's hero.
Breathtaking scenes on board the doomed jet defy expectation, raising the bar beyond even Zemeckis's own Cast Away for sheer believability and terror. And despite some fundamental flaws in the narrative, the emphasis is kept firmly on the captain at the helm.
Curiously, had he been sober, it is implied, the outcome could have been far worse.
What unfolds, then, is a journey of self-discovery, with little background analysis required. We never know exactly why Whittaker is an addict per se, even as the pilots' union (led by the ever-reliable Don Cheadle) scrambles to protect its man and its interests. Whittaker's teaming up with a recovering junkie (Kelly Reilly) only highlights his own see-saw existence, as he quits drinking, then starts again, before the case goes to court.
John Goodman's turn, as Whittaker's right-hand man/dealer, is a natural addition.
Here, Washington reminds us again that even when the material might have its issues, the sheer force of his acting chops comes out on top. Like a fine wine (no pun intended), his ability to inhabit a character far removed from his own gets better with time. Here we have one of the finest actors today, mining a deeply flawed character as if his very life depended on it. For that alone, the Oscar academy again has him in its sights.
Rated MA, 138 minutes, opens Thursday
Stars: Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle, John Goodman, Melissa Leo, Nadine Velazquez