After an amazing display, the world hails you as a hero. But, even with that, you still might spend the rest of your life in prison. What do you do? Obscure the truth and save yourself or admit the truth and face the music?
Captain William “Whip” Whitaker (played by Denzel Washington) is an airline pilot with impeccable skills and a personal life in shambles. After a night of intimacy and intoxicants, Whitaker and flight attendant Katerina Marquez wake up and prepare themselves for a scheduled flight to Atlanta. Whitaker greets his co-pilot, the naïve and devoutly religious Ken Evans (played by Brian Geraghty), and flight attendant Margaret Thomason (played by Tamara Tunie) and then prepares for take-off. After deftly piloting the plane through turbulence, Whitaker mixes himself a drink, turns on the auto-pilot, and goes to sleep. The plane goes into a steep dive as it approaches Atlanta which rouses Whitaker from his slumber. Both Whitaker and Evans attempt to halt or at least slow the plane’s descent, unsuccessfully. Whitaker then decides to roll the plane so that they might glide in at a safer angle. During the maneuver, Katerina (Whitaker’s companion from the previous evening played by Nadine Velazquez) unbuckles her seatbelt to help a child who’s been unseated thanks to the maneuver. In the interim, the engines flame out and the plane is now gliding to earth. Whitaker turns the plane right side-up, the plane crashes, and Whitaker loses consciousness. Now injured, Whitaker wakes up in an Atlanta hospital and is met by a friend and representative of the pilots’ union named Charlie Anderson. Anderson (played by Bruce Greenwood) tells Whitaker that of the 102 people on board, 96 survived the crash. Katerina, with whom Whitaker had spent the night preceding the crash, was among the six fatalities. Whitaker’s injured but will leave the hospital in a matter of days. While in the hospital, he meets another patient named Nicole Maggen while smoking in the stairwell. Maggen (played by Kelly Reilly) is in the hospital as a result of an overdose that occurred as the plane was crashing. After the hospital releases him and he is picked up by friend, neighbor and dealer Harling Mays (played by John Goodman), Whitaker elects to avoid the press by staying at a farm owned by his deceased father that he has been trying to sell. He drives to a meeting with an airline where a lawyer named Hugh Lang (played by Don Cheadle) tells Whitaker that a blood test performed after the crash showed Whitaker was under the influence and that he could face prison time, no matter what the ultimate cause of the crash.
Whitaker is the very definition of an anti-hero. While he succeeds in saving the majority of the crew and the passengers, he struggles with a myriad of personal issues including alcoholism and cocaine addiction. Goodman’s character, while he is a supplier, is hardly a salesman. He simply serves the needs of a demanding customer. The character of Nicole Maggen offers little more than perspective as we watch her turn her life around while Whitaker continues down a dark road and attempts to take her with him. Cheadle and Greenwood play morally ambiguous characters who know Whitaker broke the law but hope to keep that a secret. While this may not be as triumphant as director Robert Zemeckis’s last live-action film, Cast Away, it’s a well-made, well-written, well-acted film and I’m glad I saw it.