If I was in the habit of doing starred reviews this movie would have a lot of stars. Luckily I'm not in that habit, so I can get away with just saying that it's very good and you should all go see it!
I was a bit leery about going to see this movie, to be honest. I knew, not from the previews but from reading some reviews about it, that it was more focussed on Denzel Washington's character, Captain 'Whip' Whitaker and his addictions than on the action of the crash itself. And I have a fairly triggery relationship with alcoholism and addiction. However, I love Denzel Washington's work and I decided to trust that the payoff would be worth any pain I felt watching an alcoholic on the screen.
It was definitely worth it.
We open with Captain Whitaker waking up in bed next to one of his flight attendants. They're both more or less still drunk from the night before and in order to get going, Whitaker drinks what's left of a beer and snorts a line of cocaine. Whitaker pulls off the 'functional drunk' routine fairly well, though there are a few signs - he uses a lot of mouth wash in order to try and disguise the smell of alcohol on his breath and he slips climbing the stairs into the plane - but one could argue that if we hadn't seen him doing the drugs before hand we could have written these things off easily enough.
On the last leg of their flight into Atlanta, something goes wrong with the plane and Whitaker and his co-pilot find that they have no control. The plane is losing altitude fast, crashing straight into a residential neighborhood. Whitaker, through some truly insane maneuvers, manages to arrest their fall and guide the plane to crash land in an empty field.
But as I said, the crash is only a very small part of the movie. It's the impetus for everything that follows, but it's not the focus. As a matter of fact you can see a good chunk of the crash action in the trailer.
Here's the thing that makes this movie so good, to my mind: Washington delivers an incredibly painful and believable performance as an alcoholic who is aware that the rest of the world sees what they do as a problem but believes that they have it under control. He *knows* that what he's doing is wrong but he honestly, deep into his soul believes that he's not an addict.
There's one scene, later in the movie, where Whitaker is drunk and fighting with Nichole, a recovering addict who he is dating (sort of) and she's trying to get him to go to rehab or to AA with her or anything, anything at all. And he's screaming at her that he only drinks because he chooses to. 'I have an ex-wife and a son that don't speak to me because I CHOOSE to DRINK!' And you can see that to him, that makes him not an addict. The fact that, to his mind, he is making a choice, makes it okay. He even tries to stop drinking as soon as he gets home from the hospital after the crash, dumping all of his drugs and his alcohol (and he has a LOT of alcohol) but as soon as things start to get a little stressful he goes out and buys some beer and a very large bottle of vodka and proceeds to drink throughout the rest of the movie.
One of the things that kills me about this movie, as realistic as it is, is the number of people who are utterly willing to lie for Whitaker and let him keep living his life the way he is. They do it, ostensibly, because it actually, honestly *isn't* Whitaker's fault that the plane crashes. It's a mechanical failure and it is only due to Whitaker's flying that anyone survives at all. But what they all fail to see, or maybe just don't know how to deal with, is that Whitaker is killing himself. It's only dumb luck that it *wasn't* his fault that the plane crashed, or that he didn't crash his car and kill someone while driving around town drunk.
His friends think that they're protecting him but they're not. There is only one person, Nichole, an addict who has destroyed her own life, who sits down and demands that Whitaker take responsibility for what he has done, for actively endangering the lives of every single person he takes responsibility for as a pilot. She is the only one who comes in and, because of her own life, because she really does feel something for him, tries to get him help. For the most part there are only people around Whitaker who want to help him cover it up so that he won't be blamed for this accident.
This is a painful movie to watch, in large part because of the quality of Denzel Washington's acting, and you will probably spend a large part of it wanting to reach through the screen and slap the man until some sense bleeds into his skull. But just wait. Watch the whole movie. It's very, very worth it.