November 5, 2012 -- One would think this movie is about the crash of an airliner, but that really isn't a major part of the story. The main story is about the pilot's struggle with alcoholism. The pilot, Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is an alcoholic in deep denial. The movie is about Whitaker's personal journey to face up to this condition.
The film opens with Whitaker waking up in a hotel room with a prostitute, arguing with his wife on the phone, snorting lines of cocaine to wake up and sneaking some booze into a jar of orange juice on the plane during flight. A catastrophic control surface failure causes the airliner to go into a steep dive. The only way Whitaker can get the plane to level out is to fly it upside down. The airliner crash lands, but there are half a dozen fatalities. Whitaker is proclaimed a national hero.
An NTSB investigation tries to recreate the accident in flight simulators with experienced pilots. None of them are able to do as well as Whitaker did. All of the simulations ended in catastrophic crashes in which everyone would have died. What Whitaker did was a miracle. The problem is that Whitaker was drunk when he flew that plane. He was too drunk to drive, let alone fly. He also was under the influence of cocaine, as determined by blood tests performed while he was in the hospital recovering from injuries sustained in the crash.
Whitaker's lawyer, Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle of “Ocean's Thirteen”) manages to suppress the drug and alcohol tests on technical grounds, but then there is other evidence against Whitaker, too. The pilot's union and the airline are both very anxious to divert blame from Whitaker to others. They are, in effect, trying as hard as they can to hide Whitaker's alcoholism. This helps them, but it is not helping Whitaker.
While in the hospital, Whitaker meets a woman, Nicole (Kelly Reilly of “Sherlock Holmes”) who, like him, is chemically dependent. Whitaker is attracted to her and lets her stay at his house. Nicole, however, starts attending meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous and begins to straighten herself out. She tries to get Whitaker to do the same, but he is still in denial.
All this comes to a head on the fateful day when Whitaker must testify before the NTSB board about the accident.
The story is hard to believe. It is almost as if Whitaker is a better pilot drunk than anyone else is sober. It is not impossible. I have known some very high-functioning drunks, but this daredevil piloting performance while drunk is hard to believe. If the film was based on a true story, I would have a different opinion of it. Despite all that, Denzel Washington's performance as an alcoholic in denial is worthy of awards, including an Oscar. He is ably backed by Don Cheadle, Kelly Reilly, Bruce Greenwood (of “Star Trek” who plays union rep Charlie Anderson) and John Goodman (“Argo”) who plays Harling Mays, Whitaker's very colorful coke dealer. This film rates a B+.
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