Casting Denzel Washington as an airline pilot who performs heroically under stress in the air—but can’t control himself on the ground—was a master stroke. We’re accustomed to seeing this commanding actor project qualities like determination and strength of character. Watching him play a man facing a moral dilemma, while denying his underlying problem, resonates more than it might have with a less imposing actor in the part.
The characters and subplots that surround Washington all make sense, too: a chance hospital meeting with a woman (Kelly Reilly) who’s trying to kick a drug habit, a tense dynamic between the pilot and his union representative (Bruce Greenwood) and the lawyer (Don Cheadle) who’s handling his case, and a brotherly relationship with a good ol’ boy (John Goodman) who happily supplies Washington with whatever he needs in times of crisis, be it drugs, booze, or a change of clothing. Brian Geraghty, Tamara Tunie, and Melissa Leo also make significant contributions to the picture.
It’s nice to see Zemeckis back in top form after a decade of noodling in the mostly-unrewarding world of motion-capture production (The Polar Express, Beowulf, A Christmas Carol). He has chosen to tell this serious story at an unhurried pace, which may trouble some moviegoers but didn’t bother me in the slightest. I was completely caught up in Washington’s crisis of conscience and savored all the nuances of John Gatins’ thoughtful screenplay.
In fact, it’s refreshing to find a major studio movie, with an A-list star, that is unabashedly adult in its orientation. I only wish it happened more often.