Flight: Is Denzel really great in Flight, or does his performance rely on past roles to win us over?

Grade: B-

In storytelling, I’m a fan of the grey line. I love when films flip my morality, flop my perspective and make me question the circumstances that lead to a cut and dry right and wrong. Storytelling can be powerful, and nothing displays its power quite like a story’s ability to open your mind to a perspective you never imagined seeing before. flight-denzel-washington-paramountThere are at least two things that are fantastic about Robert Zemeckis’ Flight, one is a plane-crash scene that’s jarring enough to make me question ever scanning that boarding pass again, and the other is the way it straddles that grey line of morality and keeps the audience constantly questioning what side of that line they fall on.

Denzel Washington plays Whip Whitaker, an expert airline pilot full of all the charm, confidence, and zeal that Washington’s characters regularly embody.  Whip Whitaker is the king of his craft, and when his mechanically-ill plane goes down, it’s Whip’s calm, confidence, and natural instinct that proficiently land the plane. The twist: Whip is a raging alcoholic who has let his personal life fall to ruin. Not only did he drink the night before and the morning of the tragic flight, but he was drunk during takeoff.

There are casualties. There are lawsuits. There are lies, but the undeniable fact remains—no one could have landed that plane like he did, sober or not.  Do we blame him? Do we point the finger? Is his behavior excusable because he flew better than anyone could, or do we cling to the fact that sober he could’ve been that much better, that much sharper, and lowered the causality count by that much more?

What hooked me in the moments of the plane’s nose dive, when you know a crash is inevitable, was the way that as a viewer I put my total trust into Whip Whitaker. I’d seen the opening scene where he awakes after a night of debauchery to more coke and more booze. I’d watched him charm the passengers onboard the flight, while also popping the top off a vodka bottle to make a screwdriver with one hand.  The film had no intention to hold back on revealing any of Whip’s dubious life-choices, and yet, as Whip was barking orders, arguing his case, and insisting upon his leadership abilities as the plane headed down, I trusted him. I’d want him flying my flight.

But why?

As I was watching, I credited Denzel Washington’s performance and unwavering acting abilities as the primary reason I put my trust in Whip, which is exactly what the filmmakers wanted and exactly what they were relying on to carry the film, but after the credits rolled and I had time to think everything over, I wasn’t so sure. I’m not certain that Denzel Washington was great in this role. Instead, I think it was the culmination of all his roles, all the characters’ skins he dawned, all the accents he mastered and settings he inhabited, that made this role work. It wasn’t Whip Whitaker I was watching on the screen and it wasn’t Whip Whitaker I put my trust in, it was Coach Boone, John Q, Joe Miller, Private Trip, Malcolm X and Ben Marcho that I put my trust in. It was every other character Denzel has played, every other stellar performance that convinced me that Whip Whitaker could fly my plane. It was the trust I reserved for those characters that allowed me to trust this one.

Too often, I’d argue, movies rely on the big name to carry their movie. Too often we are presented with actors playing characters close to those they’ve played before. In Flight’s case, Denzel’s accolades and memorable characters allowed him to coast through the role. He didn’t have to add much, we trusted his character because we trust all his characters, but what if Whip Whitaker had been played by an unknown? Would a lesser name, even with the same acting ability, have been able to toe the grey line that Denzel did? Or was the character convincing because we’d already been programmed to trust Denzel when he’s on the screen? Are the truly great films and the truly great actors ones that make us forget all that came before, or is it alright if some rely on the canon as long as they achieve that same depth of  immersion as we’re watching?

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Posted on February 7, 2013, in Film Reviews :: Young and Old, The B's and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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