Denzel Washington has two Academy Awards. And he probably would not object to receiving a third Academy Award. This doesn’t really count as greed, really; it’s more like wishing for another giant slice of cake. Cake is awesome. Nobody will think any less of you for liking it that much. And who deserves cake more than Denzel?
Robert Zemeckis has an Academy Award, too. He got it for Forrest Gump, the movie that gave Tom Hanks his own second Academy Award. And now Zemeckis is directing Washington in a film that exists for what feels like practically no other reason than to assist in making extra Oscars a reality for both parties. Because if it were a film about the mundane, yet also devastating, effects of alcohol and drug addiction on the everyday lives of everyday people (like Washington’s heroic pilot character) or if it were about the potentially life-threatening effects of an already unregulated airline industry, it would be a different sort of movie than it is.
Washington’s pilot saves an out-of-control passenger jet from a devastating crash thanks to quick thinking and a skill set that, according to the story, outshines most other people in his line of work. After turning it upside down, then righting it before “gently” crashing it in a field and losing only six of the over one hundred people on board, it’s discovered that he accomplished this feat while not only drunk but also high on cocaine. An investigation ensues. Could he have saved more if he had been sober? Are those deaths his responsibility? Or is it all the fault of a stripped bolt?
Zemeckis doesn’t care which answer is true. His intent is to tell you a story you know and to tell it in a way you’ve seen before, to safely deliver his anti-hero into the arms of hitting bottom and third act catharsis. Ham-fisted, slick and confident in his own important storytelling prowess in a way that few A-list Hollywood filmmakers know how to be without causing audiences to crack up laughing, the director keeps his movie from crashing thanks to his ability to coax a truly memorable, magnetic, showboating movie star turn out of his movie star. Washington is in almost every scene that doesn’t involve other drug addicts shooting up heroin to Velvet Underground songs (“Sweet Jane,” for the record, covered by Cowboy Junkies for added underline-y emphasis, but why not just smash that hammer down directly on the nail and let “Heroin” ring out from the soundtrack? Too much? Is there such a thing?) and he’s almost always on point as a man falling apart. He’s a great performance in search of a decent film.
It’s that time of year again, when the multiplex clogs with movies that can’t help themselves from yammering on about how beautiful every last breath of life is (someone says something very close to that at one point during this one). So when Washington attends his first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting with his struggling-to-stay-sober girlfriend (Kelly Reilly, she of the Velvet Underground moment) and you watch him get up and walk right out the door as the speaker at the podium talks about how “my lies would have walked me right out that door,” the effect is disorienting. A tangle of feelings rises to the surface: admiration for the look of grim, walls-closing-in determination on Washington’s face, the tension of knowing he’ll be back at that kind of meeting again someday whether he likes it or not, the exhausted wish that Oscar-grubbing product like this would stop insulting your intelligence for even sixty seconds at a time, and about how much you could go for a drink right now yourself.
By Dave White