Posted on 4/06/13 11:54 AM
In Reality, This Turns Out Not to Work
At the Oscars, I thought Denzel Washington cringed a little when they showed the clip they'd selected to demonstrate his Best Acting, and I wondered why, at the time. Was it because it emphasized his character's alcoholism? Perhaps he thought there was a better, more powerful moment? Maybe he thought that the moment they'd chosen made the performance seem to be a Character With an Issue--fond as the Academy is of those, we all knew that the Issue that was going to win Best Actor was the Civil War, and mere alcoholism wasn't good enough. However, having now seen the movie, I've got an even better idea. I think he was annoyed because the Academy actually gave us a big ol' spoiler. The moment they'd chosen came less than ten minutes before the end of the movie. And unlike with, you know, Lincoln, this isn't a story everyone knows. The Academy emphasized the destination over the journey, if you'll pardon the metaphor.
But, yes, William "Whip" Whitaker (Washington) is an alcoholic. And, to make things even more fun, a commercial airline pilot. One day, after a night of sex, drinking, and drugs with flight attendant Katerina Marquez (Nadine Velazquez), he is flying a routine trip from Orlando to Atlanta. No big deal. Except that on this particular trip, the airplane literally just stops working and starts to fall out of the sky. In general, a drop from 30,000 feet is not going to end well for anyone, especially over a populated area. However, he manages to level the plane through a series of improbable maneuvers, including flipping the plane over, before bringing it to an emergency landing in a field where a group of Pentecostals are performing full-immersion baptism. Six lives are lost, including Marquez, but ninety-six, including Whip, are saved. In the hospital, he meets heroin addict Nicole (Kelly Reilly), whom he takes in on the family farm. She fights her addiction, and he denies his.
Honestly, one of the things that interested me most in this movie was the portrayal of God. The funniest moment in the entire movie is watching those Pentecostals scatter before the crashing plane. (They all survive, of course.) Copilot Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty) spends the crash praying. Whip's personal lawyer, Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle), fights to get "act of God" listed as a possible cause in the investigation. Nicole's chosen method out of addiction is AA, which is very big on the whole "higher power" thing. Whip's pilots' union rep and friend, Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood), says that Evans is right, and God did land the plane--and he's having breakfast with God right then, he tells Whip cheerfully. And while, as the Academy showed us, Whip does eventually admit that he's an alcoholic, he doesn't make much fuss about trusting his Higher Power in the five minutes of movie to follow. He is also the one to ask what God would have done that, a question it doesn't take long to answer if you read what some people believe.
The other thing I found particularly pleasing about the movie was the music. When Nicole returns to her apartment at the beginning of the movie with her heroin, she is being confronted by her skeezy landlord (Adam Tomei, the brother of Oscar-winner Marisa). She manages to shut him out, and as she is making the near-fatal decision to shoot, not smoke, the heroin, "Under the Bridge," by Red Hot Chili Peppers, starts playing. (For those who don't know, the song is about Anthony Kiedis and his own heroin addiction and fight to get clean.) Noted by considerably more people is that, whenever Whip's dealer appears (Harling Mays, played by John Goodman), he is accompanied by "Sympathy For the Devil," by the Rolling Stones. Though a different section each time, which makes it a little less obvious. The score is by Alan Silvestri, but the not-score bits are more noteworthy.
Okay, and I'm also pleased that Ravi Kapoor got a brief role (as Whip's doctor in the hospital), and no one accused him of being responsible for the crash. After all, Kapoor has been accused of terrorism on two separate TV shows, and it was undeserved both times. I also kind of regret not having seen this in the theatre, because the crash sequence would have been more impressive that way. No, I don't think Denzel Washington deserved to beat Daniel Day-Lewis to the Oscar. Or even Joaquin Phoenix, had Lincoln not come out last year. I will add this movie to the list of films that make it surprising that the Academy only nominated nine movies for Best Picture, however. Not as good as The Master, but better than Les Mis. Yes, the idea of flipping the plane as a successful one is implausible; we know this because, the one time it was tried, it didn't work. It's also iffy that someone with a substance abuse problem the size of Whip's would make it as a commercial pilot for very long. It's still an impressive film.