Captain “Whip” Whitaker’s (Washington) life is every bit the free fall that should have taken the lives of every soul on board the plane he pilots at the beginning of the film. Likewise, the Captain’s drug-induced nonchalance in crisis that affords him a cool detachment to guide the crash is also his unraveling.
This movie is theater-worthy, but be warned:
- There is plenty of cursing to go around;
- There is substance abuse – it’s even glorified, as often presented on a platform of comedy as it is in tragedy;
- There’s also nudity, right from the start
This story is a punch in the gut that keeps you writhing from take off, as Whitaker’s internal conflict incrementally rises like the doomed plane he pushes through a storm. After the plane crash lands, he flirts as much with sobering up as he does another line of coke and bottle of Jack, as long as a little luck, and more importantly his “friends” remain at his side to enable him.
Few actors can portray this character so well, and I’ve not seen a better performance from Washington since The Hurricane. He engages you with the life of a womanizing addict, makes you hope for his redemption, and flinch when he chooses the bottle over another second chance.
The other reason to watch this in theaters (the first being the incredible crash sequence), is the extreme close-ups on Washington. His eyes express stifled anguish as gears of guilt turn their ever-dulling edges in his soul.
Zemeckis wastes no time in throttling us into Whitaker’s character, a man who seemingly walks on water and owns his addiction as a trinket.
It’s a good thing this alcohol and cocaine addicted, divorced father has help from a meth addicted hooker…? Her name is Nicole (Kelly Reilly – you may know her as Watson’s wife in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock movies). Whitaker meets her at the hospital when they share a clandestine smoking spot with a man dying of a rare cancer.
This particular scene is unnecessary, but it’s played so well it’s forgivable. It’s also off-beat and poignant enough to ring true; as much as Goodman’s performance is quirky and dark.
I don’t know if the comic relief is meant for relief, but it feels natural, offering all the feel-good excuses necessary to stave off a conscience rich with history and truth. This is something not to be enjoyed, but appreciated: it’s honesty in dealing with a life lived in shades of gray, where our protagonist grapples with his own convictions.
Enter the lawyer. If excuses and denial could wear a suit, they’d look like Hugh Lang, played by Don Cheadle – another great performance. He’s Whitaker’s way out, through legal loopholes and dismissed evidence that finally put Whitaker back in the driver’s seat of his fate, and where his conflicts finally land him at a crossroads between a clean slate and an easy lie.
You’ll understand why his wife and estranged son walked away from Whitaker: his lies, his addiction, his whole world. It’s nagging hope that keeps you in his hot seat; hope that he’ll own his addiction finally as a man entering a guilty plea, finding peace and freedom.
The film waits until the final minutes to reveal whether Whitaker learns the “act of God” that sent his plane into a nose dive is more than his lawyer’s jargon for something a pilot could not control. It may just as well have been his own doing, for the life he already lost. How many second chances does redemption have left?