Denzel Washington has earned his best actor nomination. His performance as an addict pilot who saves a plummeting passenger jet while it and he are loaded is riveting. His character covers the gamut, from stoned to heroic, solemn to terrified, brash to impotent, but unlike other aging, iconic actors, Washington is toning down his idiosyncrasies. The scene where he learns that 6 of the 102 passengers did not make it, including a flight attendant with whom he was intimate, is a study in restraint. One shudders to think what Pacino would have done with such a role. While Tony Montana scarred that actor permanently, Washington was able to accept his best actor Oscar for Training Day without making excess his trademark.
Washington’s multi-faceted and powerful performance takes us through what is otherwise a confused film by Robert Zemeckis. The opening scene is a skillful, harrowing recreation of an incredible crash and what follows looks to be somewhat of a procedural, as the defense lawyer (Don Cheadle) is introduced and the airlines, the union and the government take their positions. Before you can settle in, however, Zemeckis pivots, and you’re watching a film about addiction, replete with a whore (well, a heroin addict) with a heart of gold (a wan Kelly Reilly). Okay. Fine. Will Washington’s valor be sullied by revelation of his intoxication? Will his heroism be overridden by his own self destructive tendencies?
As the film’s day of reckoning approaches, the picture reaches for the spiritual, and the final trials become ludicrous. Will he drink? Will he lie? Has he hit rock bottom? Before we find out, enter John Goodman, as the drug dealer who must get Washington straight via cocaine after an all night bender, in a wacky, comic turn.
What the hell is going on here?
In parts, the film is moving. In others, it is muddled or plain awkward, but Washington pulls you through what eventually morphs into a redemptive weepie.