November 12, 2012 by Zack
I’m pretty sure if you gave me a few lines of cocaine, an all night binge of drinking and casual sex, I don’t think I could land a malfunctioning plane the very next morning. Of course, I don’t know that I’d function at all the next day. But that’s just the scenario commercial airline pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) has put himself into–and he lands the plane, inverted, and saves 96 out of 102 people on board.
That’s the set up of Rob Zemekis’s new film, and his first live action film since “Cast Away” in 2000. That film, too, had an airpline crisis that wound up leaving Tom Hanks stranded on a deserted island. Here, though, all is well, and the plane…lands.
But that’s not the whole story. After the crash/land, Whitaker sustains a few injuries, as well as his co-pilot (recovering from a coma), and his casual sex partner who happened to be one of the flight attendants, is one of the dead. He’s obviously shaken by this event, and after being offered some pick-me-ups from his dealer (played jovially by John Goodman, who always puts a smile on your face whatever he does), decides he wants to stay clean. That’s a good idea for him, as he’s battled addiction before and lost his marriage and custody of his son over it. Whip is considered a hero to the media and to the people he saved–but the NTSB (a federal investigation bureau assigned to the crash landing) has produced a toxicology report that, if brought to light, could put Whip in jail, possibly for the rest of his life. The positive results of alcohol and cocaine being in his system at the time of the flight and landing mean that the 6 who were killed would be charged as manslaughter against him.
Someone from the pilot union is on Whip’s side, Charlie (played well by the always reliable Bruce Greenwood), and an attourney, Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle), agrees to help Whip and thinks he can have the toxicology report thrown out.
All of this works out well for Whip, who could walk away clean. On top of this, while in the hospital, he meets another recovering addict (of heroin), Nicole (Kelly Reilly). The two of them go off to his father’s old crop dusting ranch, retreating from the media and secluding themselves from outside conflicts. But it’s the inner conflicts that begin to haunt Whip, as he delves back into alcoholism and drives Nicole away. Meanwhile, he tries in vain to reconnect with his ex-wife and son, who kicks him out in one of the film’s most dramatic scenes.
The film is full of dramatic scenes, all of them involving Denzel, delivering his best and most complete performance in years. But while the film has its heart in the right place, and is highly likeable, something is just a little off.
In the first place, I never really bought the NTSB investigation. The media hype alone would have staved off any kind of investigation because it would have been a PR nightmare. This was due to airplane malfunction, not pilot error. The toxicology report would’ve been shredded immediately. Sure, it’s the government and they have a responsibility. And we all know how honorable and trustworthy government agencies are in this great nation, right? …?
Then, there’s a real missed opportunity with the theme of “hero worship” in general. Whip saved 96 lives on a plane that was doomed to kill all on board. Yes, he tries to escape the media. But what if he actually tried to embrace it, like so many do? Book deals, interviews, 60 minutes, talk shows? What if that related to the alcohol abuse, or gave him more of a reason to use again? There’s not a lot of backstory on how much Whip was a user while flying. Did he do these things because that’s the only way he could fly? That’s never really explored.
In fact, the film gets tunnel vision right around the time that Whip and Nicole hide out together. Nicole is completely heroin-free, something else that’s a bit hard to believe since withdrawal from that drug can actually cause death because it’s so intense to get off of.
Then, there’s the religious angle. There are scenes where the film tries to hint at the question of whether God was involved in saving that plane. There’s some symbolism, and there’s one very confused and uncomfortable scene where the co-pilot has awoken from his coma, and he and his wife (who can only speak in “Praise Jesus” words, literally), go from berating him and judging him…to praying with him and telling him everything will be OK. It’s very awkward, and doesn’t do anything to raise the stakes for Whip. Because there’s no direct agenda on what the film’s trying to say about whether God exists or not, it just comes off as flimsy.
While there are stakes in the background for Whip, in the foreground it just doesn’t come across dramatically. I never felt that the investigation was going to find Whip guilty of manslaughter. There is a “courtroom” scene that’s well done, in which Whip finally has to force himself to take responsibility.
But all of this is done in a somewhat muddled way–it’s uncharacteristically unfocused for Zemekis, who is usually in command behind the camera. The film’s title is an obvious double meaning, similar in the way “Cast Away” was. But while it is a wonderful character study of addiction, and Denzel Washington does an incredible job of bringing that to the screen with brutal honesty, the film itself…does not…take…
OK, I’ll spare you the pun. It just doesn’t come together for me in the end. There were some things the film did well, but I think it was missing out on something even bigger. If a guy lands a plane and saves lives but was on drugs, it raises great moral questions
I think there were other questions this film could’ve pondered, too, and it would’ve made it a stronger film.