By Jim Cullen
Over the course of the last thirty years, Denzel Washington has played a notable variety of roles: leading man and aging man; hero and villain; emblem of his race and Everyman. Yet to a truly striking degree the various roles he’s chosen — and here it’s worth noting that as one of the most blue-chip actors in Hollywood, he’s long enjoyed considerable power in this regard — revolve around two key relationships: mentor and protégé. Early in his career (Carbon Copy, Glory) he was a literal or figurative son; in more recent roles (John Q, The Great Debaters) he’s been the literal or figurative father. In Malcolm X, he managed to play both, the disciple of a religious movement as well as a role model for others. This is no coincidence. For decades, Washington has been a spokesman for the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. Since the turn of the century, Washington has expanded his cinematic vision of mentoring in new racial and gender directions. In Man on Fire, he was a surrogate father for the white child played by Dakota Fanning; in Unstoppable he was the steady hand in a crisis with Chris Pine.
All of which makes Washington’s latest star turn, as an airline pilot in the newly released Flight, so surprising. He plays William “Whip” Whitaker, whose daring maneuver navigating a malfunctioning plane allows most of its passengers to survive the ordeal. Such impressive competence is not unusual for a Washington character. Nor is the fact that he’s a flawed man — in this case, an alcoholic and drug addict who made that landing in a state of plural intoxication. Washington has played troubled and ethically-challenged people before (notably as a corrupt cop in Training Day, for which he won an Oscar, in part no doubt by playing against type) and American Gangster. What’s different here is the degree to which we see the limits of power for a Washington character on his own terms. It’s not simply that he can’t save all the passengers — a fact that puts his career in jeopardy when evidence of his altered state surfaces. Even more significantly, his character tries, and fails, to mentor multiple people.
The first example that we see comes early in the movie with his younger white co-pilot (Brian Geraghty), who is earnest and anxious about the storm into which the two men are flying — and anxious about his boss as well. Whitaker shows real leadership in a moment of crisis, but cannot ultimately prevent disaster from befalling his lieutenant, who later interprets the situation very differently than Whitaker does. While recovering from his injuries at an Atlanta hospital, Whitaker also befriends an attractive young drug addict (Kelly Reilly) and later rescues her from an abusive landlord at the very moment she’s to become homeless. Whitaker gives her a floor, literal and figurative, which we she can rebuild her life. But his own addictions make it impossible for him to play a constructive role beyond that, which he clearly wants to do.
Washington’s character fails a much more fundamental test not as a figurative father but as a literal one for his own son (Justin Martin). Actually, the father’s main role is to prompt the son to stick up for his mother (Garcelle Beauvais). Father and son will ultimately experience a rapprochement, but it’s not quite the family reunion Hollywood convention typically dictates.
Not that Flight is an especially unconventional movie. Director Robert Zemeckis is a technically accomplished filmmaker with evident skills in telling this story. You know pretty much right away that Whip Whitaker is headed for a reckoning, and you know pretty much right away that it’s going to be one that happens on his time and on his terms, in good Alcoholics Anonymous fashion. Whip Whitaker is a rugged, if shambling, individualist. This is hardly shocking in the broader context of film history, but Denzel Washington rarely is. Moreover, Washington is not content to leave it at that this time around. His larger point in taking this role appears to be that personal accountability is insufficient — a necessary precondition for an authentic life, but not adequate on its own terms. In Flight, it seems, sooner or later you must go home again, notwithstanding any necessary detours. This involves accepting limits — among them the limits of leadership.
Jim Cullen teaches history at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York City. He is the author of the forthcoming Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions (December 2012), The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea that Shaped a Nation, and other books. Cullen is also a book review editor at the History News Network.