Denzel Washington really shines in this role, though itís not a sympathetic one. He plays Whip Whitaker, a veteran airline pilot whose alcohol and drug dependency has taken control of his life. Itís already cost him his marriage, and any kind of positive relationship with his teenaged son, but up to now heís been content to ďpartyĒ with good-looking and willing young flight crew, and so we begin with a drunken, carousing scene with Katerina (Nadine Velazquez), with plenty of gratuitous imbibing, and then itís off to work for both of them, and Whip prepares for just another day in the cockpit.
Ah, but events intervene. They run into very bad weather, and then a frayed part leads to a frozen aileron, which causes the plane to spin out of control, and suddenly our drunk pilot has to rely heavily on his reflexes and instincts to bring the crippled aircraft in for a crash landing in an open field.
The good news is that most of the passengers and crew somehow survive. The bad news is that Katerina dies in the crash, and when they do a routine toxicology on our self-indulgent pilot, now heís in danger of going from instant hero-celebrity to worse than scapegoat---he could end up in prison with manslaughter charges against him.
Whip doesnít have many friends left (this is a predictable part of the progression of the alcoholism). The pilotís union rep, an old military buddy, tries to be an advocate and get a good criminal lawyer (a somber-looking Don Cheadle), but so far Whipís not being very cooperative. He keeps insisting that no one could have saved that plane except him (and, in fact, other pilots trying the same scenario on a simulator all failed). He evades the press, temporarily, by retreating to his late fatherís old family farm, a remote property he had been trying to sell, but now heís glad he hadnít succeeded.
At the hospital, heíd met another addict, Nicole (Kelly Reilly), while sneaking a cigarette in a stairwell, and they even engage in this bizarre little theological discussion with a refugee from the cancer ward downstairs, also smoking in the stairwell, about Godís will, and we wonder where that came from, or where itís going. But after Whip looks her up and takes her to his fatherís farm to party, at first sheís a willing participant, then Nicole suddenly decides to sober up, and we root for her to help Whip straighten himself out, but itís not that easy. Whip also runs into some unsolicited theological discussion by visiting his co-pilot in the hospital, who preaches to him, and then offers to pray with him, but Whip isnít ready to go there, either, and also walks out of the AA meeting that Nicole invites him to, all because he thinks he can still quit any time. He even shows up drunk to his ex-wifeís house and has a confrontation with his son, but he it still hasnít hit him how alone he really is, at least as long as his dealer (an interesting over-the-top part for John Goodman) continues to happily supply him.
Meanwhile, his hotshot lawyer almost gets him off entirely, until the day of the big NTSB hearing, when Whip manages to show up drunk and high, again, and when it is obvious that they are trying to pin blame on Katerina, somehow, because of her toxicology report, Whip finally has had enough. He cannot tell even one more lie. He finally admits his culpability. His problem now is that the moment of admitting it to himself is oh-so-public.
How big of a price do we want him to pay? Do we want to see him in prison? Do we want for him to be reconciled to his son? To recover his pilotís credentials? To eat crow in AA meetings?
Denzel Washington has almost always played characters we are ready to root for unashamedly, but this one will challenge that accustomed loyalty. His character is indeed memorable, but more despicable than likable, despite Denzelís natural charm. And yet, itís all about finding redemption, and how can we Christians not be in favor of that?
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, St. Stephenís Presbyterian Church, Irving , Texas