Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Best Actor 2012: Denzel Washington in Flight

Denzel Washington received his sixth Oscar nomination for portraying William "Whip" Whitaker in Flight.

Flight is not a particularly good film about a pilot after successfully saving a plane from a nose dive has to face his alcohol problems due to a criminal investigation. The film despite handling the crash scene well tries too many subplot, bizarre attempts at humor, and just fails to bring it together.

Denzel Washington is an actor that I have never found to be that great of one. He is not one that I actively dislike, I think he can be just fine, but for me he tends to be an actor who never really gets to the heart of his character. In this film he portrays one of the very favorite characters of the Oscar voters which is the alcoholic. Now there are many great performances as the alcoholics such as the Oscar winning turns by Ray Milland, and Nicolas Cage, or the Oscar nominated turn by Jack Lemmon in the Days of Wine and Roses. Although they all play alcoholics there character's are very different particularly the way alcohol factors into their life Washington's Whip certainly is a bit different from his predecessors. 

In the opening of the film we see Whip casually drinking and doing drugs without anything special in the way that he is doing it. Washington portrays it as just standard procedures and Whip as a tired individual but not a man without ability to do what he needs to do. Honestly Washington could have pressed these moments a little more to show Whip more down trodden due to his history as an alcoholic that would have made his moments on the air plane more powerful, but than again it works just fine the way he plays the part anyway. His earlier moments though lead him to the scene where he must deal with the plane that is likely to crash.

Just like the film, the crash is the highlight of his performance. Washington is quite good in this scene as he shows Whip basically kick into action by his instincts as a pilot. In this scene he portrays Whip as a man in command of his faculties completely in the moment. Before he portrayed a certain aloofness about Whip, but here he makes Whip able to do what he needs to do. Washington does well by not really making Whip any sort of a different person in this scene, nor is it a revelation in the moment. Instead he does effectively create a history within Whip in this moment through the conviction he gives to Whip when he does display his abilities as a pilot that the events forced him to display.

After the crash though the film goes down hill as does Washington's performance. He has a good scene that is mostly expressed through one eye as he hears the tragic news of the few people who did die in the crash. The scene is very well handled by Washington as he expresses the pain quite well, without overdoing it, nor undergoing  it two things that become a problem later on in the film. Right here though Washington expresses the loss at the moment very well and effectively brings the weight of the moment to life. It is a very well handled scenes by Washington here and really it portrays just what might have been if the film was a better made film, but as well if Washington had given a better performance.

One problem with the performance, that is as well as problem with Washington's performance is the way Whip goes back and forth in using alcohol in the film. In his scene where he stops, or the scene where he jumps back on Washington portrays barely even a thought to doing this action. The film takes a similar approach by rushing through it, but Washington does not make up for it failing to really make it seem even a hard decision for him whether he is going to start drinking or stop. Washington just seems lacking in these moments that should be absolutely pivotal moments in the film, but they fail to have the power one imagine they should have because of how nonchalant his actions seem.

This is not to say Washington completely fails in portraying the alcoholism. There is one very good moment where Whip explains how he just accepts his drinking as part of himself. This moment of self denial is handled bluntly and to the point that works in explaining Whip's mind state much more than those scenes where he decides to stay on or get off the wagon. Washington's overall portrayal though never has the punch it should have in this regard particularly in the scene where Whip goes on a binge near the end of the film. Again this is really the director's fault as we really do not see his decay in this scene instead we only really see him after it is over making so Washington does not even have the chance to show how detrimental his drinking problem is.

Further problems created by the film those involve Whip's relationship with the other character's in the film. In the scenes where the people talk about religion to him, are done in such a bizarre fashion that they seem to want to be taken seriously yet they're done in a comedic fashion. Washington who is mostly reactionary in these scenes certainly can't make anything out of them as his expressions do not hold any power. We can't make anything out of these scenes, nor does Washington make anything out of them. I want to say though I can't blame him too much in this regard as I don't know if any actor could make the scene where Whip meets his co-pilot work since it was done in such an absurd inept fashion.

Another problem from the good film comes by the way of Whip's relationship with a fellow addict Nicole (Kelly Reilly). Their relationship seems like it should be based on mutual dependence or something, but Washington and Reilly just kind of are together without really making much out of it. Washington has one good moment with her which is the moment when he says how he drinks which I mentioned earlier. Otherwise than that scene though nothing comes from their scenes together. The only thing that makes this worse is the film just basically seems to forget about Reilly's character at one point making their whole relationship pointless, so there is no wonder that it is as ineffectual as it is.

Most of these problems I speak of are mostly the film's problem well there is one scene where Washington and the film are terrible in equal measure. This scene is when Whip goes to visit his ex-wife and his son. This scene is rushed over the top, with his son being played as poorly as possible, and Washington tries to make something out of it which is a serious problem. He starts going over the top right back with his Training Day evil smile right on his face. It is a terrible scene and Washington only makes it worse by trying to interact the scene which was not salvageable. Due to his attempt to do something here though this stands as one very bad scene in his portrayal that sticks out like a sore thumb.

Now after this scene where get the breakdown we do not see than we get the scene where he is on trial. The trial scene is problematic as Washington does not really show the scene like he just is barely holding together like one would imagine he should be doing. When he is pushed to damn the name of a deceased crew member he does reveal the truth. In this moment Washington is okay, but the moment of revelation does not have nearly enough passion behind it. Washington does not handle downright poorly, but it frankly seems like a missed opportunity. A stronger moment really was warranted as it should have been the moment he was going to stop lying to himself, but Washington leaves it fairly mundane.

Due to the mundane fashion he handles that scene his last months later scene seems more like the ending to a PSA than really where Whip would end up at the end. The final moment of his performance just seems like an anticlimax for the character, and it all seemed a little too easy in the end. Washington does have a few very good moment like the crash scene and some of his reactions like his face of fear and disbelief when he first hears of the criminal charges. The film though stops him from really giving anything more than middling, and unfortunately Washington also fails in key moments where he possibly could have made up for the problems of the film. Unfortunately this is a performance where the bad very much outweighs the good. 


Anonymous said...

Great review, as usual! What did you think of Don Cheadle, John Goodman and Bruce Greenwood?

Anonymous said...

Sorry to change topics Louis but who are your top 10 favorite actors? Just curious

Louis Morgan said...

Anonymous: Thanks. I thought Cheadle and Greenwood were both quite good, and I wish their story had gotten more focus. Goodman was part of the problematic misguided comedy in the film.

My top ten favorite actors (this may be subject to some change although the top five are firm):
1. Laurence Olivier
2. Gene Hackman
3. Alec Guinness
4. Robert Shaw
5. James Mason
6. Robert Duvall
7. Paul Newman
8. James Stewart
9. Michael Caine
10. Clark Gable

RatedRStar said...

I thought Cheadle was the best in the film, I really didnt like Washington or the film, really dissapointing.

RatedRStar said...

oh wow James Mason is in your top 5hehe =D

mrripley said...

I thought the male supporting cast where very good bar Goodman and helped Denzels performance and i also thought Reilly was terrrible miscast,i mean she almost died but looked lovlier than she did before it happened,James Badge Dale was great in his single scene as was the undevalued Brian Geraghty,Reilly looked to well bred to be believable.

koook160 (Robert MacFarlane) said...

Another performance like Penn in Milk, Freeman in Million Dollar Baby, and Del Toro in 21 Grams we'll just have to agree to disagree on.

JamDenTel said...

Fine analysis. Generally agree with you about the film (HOW did it get a Best Screenplay nomination over The Master?)

Michael Patison said...

How did it get a screenplay nomination over Looper and Seven Psychopaths? The Master's screenplay was terrible, in my opinion.

JamDenTel said...


I loved Seven Psychopaths and wished it had been nominated for its script, but I also admired The Master and thought that, while the directing and acting outshone the writing, it still had a strong enough script to be worthy of a nomination.

I have a few too many issues with Looper to support its nomination.

Michael Patison said...

The Master's script was just pointless sine the film never ended up saying anything. Anderson's direction not only outshines the writing but saved the movie from being absolutely dismal to being just bad.

Anonymous said...

I'm generally of the same mind as you when it comes to Washington in that I don't really like or dislike him as an actor. The only perf of his I've really liked is his Best Actor winning one in Training Day.

That being said, I thought he was good here too. I agree that the film has a lot of problems (including being EXTREMELY boring) but Denzel did what he could to rise above them. He's at his best when he's not playing drunk (Glenn Close did it better at the Globes ;) ) but in his sober scenes fighting against the addiction. You are right about Reilly and the religious scenes, they are just terrible. A solid 3/3.5 from me.

koook160 (Robert MacFarlane) said...

@Michael: My analysis of the movie is that the movie isn't pointless, but about futility. Freddie Quell ended up being a lost cause because he couldn't change. On the other hand, that might be a good thing, considering he would have been at the mercy of cult leader for the rest of his life. On the other hand, the nagging question of his self-destructive nature makes it one of the most unsettling endings this year. Not the most unsettling, that honor goes to Looper and Zero Dark Thirty.

Michael Patison said...

The issue is that I wanted to be unsettled by the ending and I was left with the feeling of hollowness. PTA is so good at asking really hard questions but making the viewer answer them, but here he never asks that hard question.

Louis Morgan said...

Kook160/Michael: I think we can all agree at least that Seven Psychopaths definitely should have been there over Flight.

Derek Bowman: Honestly I was close to giving him a three becuase I really did like his good moments, but really it is his first scene with Whip's son that assured me that he was a 2.5

Michael Patison said...

I haven't seen him here, but I generally feel the same way about him. Every time I see him, I always end up thinking that I was watching Denzel Washington playing such and such a character, not Denzel Washington became that character. He has a screen identity that I actually do like quite a bit, but I never fully understand the high praise he receives for his more critically acclaimed work. I find this to be the issue with Will Smith (aside from the fact that Smith isn't very good to begin with and he generally makes terrible movie), that he never successfully overcomes his Will Smith screen persona.

Michael Patison said...

In reference to my post about screen personas, I'm not saying they're bad, especially when used effectively. Both Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart (at least until around 1950) had definite screen personas, but they both were excellent at giving performances that were incredibly unique nuances on those screen personas, which made them appear to become their characters.

Anonymous said...

I hate Denzel Washington, I think he's a very limited actor but this is the best performance I've seen by him (that's not really saying much, he really shouldn't have been nominated over Hawkes' perfect performance!).