Denzel Washington has wowed audiences by playing both sides of the hero-villain spectrum. Just look at the two performances that earned him Oscars. 1989′s “Glory” saw him as an almost angelic soldier fighting in the first all-black company in the United States Army, while 2001′s “Training Day” had him as a cop so devious and corrupt you wanted to jump through the screen and put a bullet through his head.
In “Flight,” Washington plays in the shades of grey of Whip Whitaker, an alcoholic pilot who becomes a hero after steering his malfunctioning plane to safety with his unconventional wisdom. The catch is that Whitaker was high on cocaine and drunk as a skunk when he did so. Of course, the public blindly adores him in a way reminiscent of Sully, the pilot who landed his vessel in the Hudson River and had a memoir in Barnes & Noble faster than you could say “American Airlines.” But Whitaker has plenty of baggage that he can’t come to grips with and can’t compress into one of the overhead bins. (Sorry, the puns with “Flight” are just endless.)
Because it’s a Denzel Washington performance, it’s fascinating to watch. He owns the screen with a commanding presence rivaled by few in cinema these days. But because Washington has such well-known and well-defined extremes, it’s fairly easy to tell what he thinks of Whitaker.
While he may have the moments of tough, firm leadership that Coach Herman Boone exhibits, Whitaker is clearly more in the model of a Frank Lucas or an Alonzo Harris. It’s impressive that Washington can convey meaning through the mere iconography of his stature; however, in a movie like “Flight” that depends on our shifting judgements of the protagonist, that strength becomes a liability.