This is the set-up, and I just wish there was more to admire here. The first act involving the plane crash is the best part of the film, so that should tell you something. It is obvious that Zemeckis knows how to film a plane going down (remember that horrific scene in Castaway), but then he lets things come undone. As does Spielberg with Lewis in Lincoln, Zemeckis allows the camera to linger a long time on Washington’s face, giving us close-ups of bloody eyes and his contorted visage. Making this kind of image dominate the big screen sets us up for the premise that Whip is a tortured soul, and we want to feel for him, but then the script keeps getting in the way.
John Gatins is nominated for Best Original Screenplay, but I would think this has more to do with creating the role for Washington, crafting lines and action that push him into nominee status. It’s not like this is the first time this has happened, but it’s obvious this is a role that is made for the guy with the right acting chops. As usual, Washington is that guy (for the most part), but even he has to play along with his direction and say the lines that are written for him.
When Whip meets fellow substance abuser Nicole (an outstanding Kelly Reilly), it seems he may have found his soul mate in her equally damaged heroin addict. Although they become romantic, Nicole wants to get her life together and be sober; unfortunately, Whip does not recognize that she could be his salvation and continues to sink deeper and deeper into alcoholic oblivion. We wonder why such a smart and talented guy like Whip would let this happen to himself, but perhaps that is the whole point.
Whip is also alienated from his wife (Garcelle Beauvais) and son (Justin Martin), who know what’s behind the curtain and want no part of him. His old friend Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood) and attorney Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle) try to keep him clean, but Whip continues getting himself into jams and reporters start stalking him. Even after Nicole leaves him, Whip is unable to get himself straightened out, and it is imperative that he do so before an impending NTSB hearing.
While all of this seems like it has infinite dramatic possibilities, the payoff is less than satisfying. Perhaps my biggest gripe with this film is that Washington’s character is at times so despicable that I found no reason to want him to succeed; furthermore, for him to triumph means that I would want him to successfully lie about being drunk and get away with it. At least in Castaway we have no conflicted feelings about wanting Tom Hanks to get off that island, but here it is a ping pong effect of wanting Whip to get caught but then not wanting it.