Denzel Washington: Never Let You Down

Gavin Bond looks at the Denzel Washington’s acting career and his ability to turn in honest and charismatic performances which is exemplified by his powerful performance in Robert Zimeckis’s Flight.

“God help me,” mutters airline pilot “Whip” Whitaker at the climactic moment of truth in Robert Zemeckis’s Flight. Whip has been hailed as a hero for saving 96 “souls” by crash-landing his crippled plane, having pulled off a daring, decidedly nontextbook aerial maneuver while maintaining the calm professionalism of a heart surgeon. Whip also happens to be an alcoholic and drug user with a messiah complex who’s almost continuously under the influence from the first moment we see him until the film’s final minutes. Like his jetliner, he’s locked into an uncontrolled descent.

The film’s redemption narrative depicting the downward spiral of a self-destructive individual is familiar enough. But what makes Flight a superior version of this narrative is a special effect that tops anything in the terrifying and skillfully directed crash sequence—Denzel Washington’s riveting performance as Whip.

Playing a character for whom lying and self-deception have become almost second nature, Washington gives us, with immense subtlety, the wrenching spectacle of a man who disappoints us without fail. This subtlety is present at every turn, for example in the segue from defensiveness to belligerence when his union rep (Bruce Greenwood) and defense lawyer (Don Cheadle) inform Whip that he may be facing a criminal manslaughter charge after his blood sample tests positive for alcohol and cocaine during the flight. That scene is capped by Whip falling off the wagon in the hotel bar: after slowly turning his double vodka around and around on its place mat Washington downs it in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it acting moment that tells us everything we need to know about misery drinking. And then there’s Washington’s sharp rendition of mortification and shame when Whip attempts, at the funeral of his flight-attendant girlfriend no less, to persuade one of his cabin crew to lie about his condition on the day of the flight.

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