But his performance as Whip Whitaker, an alcoholic airline pilot battling with inner demons after his jet goes down, is no less impressive in Bob Zemeckis’s (Back To The Future) powerful addiction-drama.
The tendency for a film of this nature – Whitaker is drunk at the controls when his plane suffers a mechanical failure that forces him to crash land, his superior skills alone resulting in a miraculous evasion of what could have been a far larger tragedy – would be overly preachy, sentimental and, for the actor, showboaty.
Washington, though, is too savvy to over-egg it and delivers a performance that is subtle and compassionate without glossing over the fact Whitaker is no saint.
He’s a self-deluded mess, prone to playing the victim (“Don’t worry about me” he roars as those close to him try in vain to help), yet he’s empathetic, too.
Zemeckis allows the story and relationships to unfold naturally, and stages a barnstorming crash sequence opening.
It is the more intimate moments that affect most, though – Whitaker staring conflictedly into a hotel minibar; desperately pleading with those around him to support his lies – and despite a closing act that threatens to veer into Hollywood excess, Zemeckis and screenwriter John Gatins close out on a note full of warmth, honesty and touching drama.
Washington may not win the golden gong, but were he to it would not be a travesty, as he proves here that he’s one of the finest actors out there.
Good for: A serious subject tackled in a major Hollywood production with insight and honesty.
Starring: Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly | 15 | 138mins | Out February 1