Friday, November 2, 2012

Is Washington Ready to Take "Flight" into the Acting Category?

Denzel Washington
It has been awhile since we've had a likely candidate for Best Actor. Along with director Steven Spielberg's upcoming Lincoln, we are looking at that field to be closing fast. With Joaquin Phoenix (The Master) and John Hawkes (The Sessions) almost guaranteed and with a possibility of Anthony Hopkins (Hitchcock), it seems like movies like director Tom Hooper's Les Miserables will need to do double time to break the mold. However, this weekend sees the rise of the next possible candidate: Denzel Washington in director Robert Zemeckis' return to live action film Flight about an alcoholic pilot who averted a plane crash. Are we looking at the return of the acting juggernaut who last won Best Actor for director Antoine Fuqua's Training Day, or is the same old Washington that we've come to expect?

Reviews have started to leak out on the movie Flight. Some critics love it while others call it a familiar Hollywood ending. Despite all of this criticism, there has been one consensus among majority of the critics: Washington is great. Here are a few quotes:
"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."

-Leonard Maltin (Picks)
"Flight flies high due to Washington who rescues the film twice, as both the fictional hero and as the superb actor, etching a character awash in palpable guilt, denial and helplessness. He is Sky King, circa 2012."
-Kimberly Gadette (Doddle)
Flight never soars, despite the often persuasive best efforts of Denzel Washington."
-Duane Dudek (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

The consensus seems to be that this is a flawed film from former Academy Award winner Robert Zemeckis, who won Best Picture for Gladiator and lead Tom Hanks to a Best Actor nomination in Castaway. He has long been considered a visual darling, making movies like Contact and Back to the Future pop with vibrancy. However, his notorious later work like The Polar Express leaves many questioning his motives for moving into CGI kiddie fare. Flight is supposed to be a return to form for the director, and leaves many excited. Personally, I am just excited to see if he makes the  plane crash into a visual delight that we have come to expect from him.

This also applies to Denzel Washington, who won Best Supporting Actor for Glory and Best Actor for Training Day. This has lead him to be one of the most respected actors of his time. Instead of progressing into the upper echelons, he made more questionable work like Deja Vu and Unstoppable. He still put out a few credible films like The Great Debaters and American Gangster, but he hasn't received any Oscar nomination since 2001. For the most part he hasn't lost his credibility  but has become known as the intense man who talks sternly. This continues to be seen in his previous film Safe House

However, putting these two wayward Oscar winners together seems like a brilliant move. Take a look at the trailer to see what a Washington/Zemeckis collaboration looks like:

At most it conjures up memories of Castaway and Unstoppable, though that is to be expected. However, the trailer also gives hint that Washington isn't just the stern voice anymore. He is a complex alcoholic who has to fess up for being a drunken hero. If they do justice to the script by John Gatins, this could be a compelling court case drama as well as an analysis of alcoholism in the modern age. Of course, this could backfire, as Gatins' previous credit is the blockbuster rock'em sock'em robots film Real Steel. Hardly a relief for a heavy drama.

At 138 minutes, it is expected that Washington can carry the cast that also features Melissa Leo, John Goodman and Don Cheadle. It is also possible that after Zemeckis successfully had Tom Hanks carry Castaway by himself that he can do it again, even if that was 12 years ago. Still, with reviews praising Washington's performance over the actual film provides some hope that is a return to the vibrant, engaging Washington that we got in Training Day. Along with the plane crash scene (which has sadly been released as promotional materials), he is the reason that this film could be great.

The reality is that Flight doesn't stand a chance for the most part at the Oscars. It already is a tough year with movies like Argo and The Master taking top spots and leaving everyone else to catch up. Even at 78% on Rotten Tomatoes and a lack of praise for the actual script, it is a little  hard to get a Best Picture nomination (though movies with lower scores have been nominated). Even in technical fields, I have stated that Cloud Atlas deserves every trophy. At most, we can expect the plane crash scene to constitute consideration, but otherwise, just give the awards to Cloud Atlas already.

As far as statistics on website Gold Derby show, it doesn't look to be the front runner in any field. It is just outside the Top 10 Best Picture nominations with odds of 60:1. It is surprisingly high in the Best Original Screenplay category with odds of 33:1 at #6. However, the best chance that the website shows for the movie is still Washington for Best Actor with odds of 8:1 at #4. He has been gaining traction in the past few weeks and it could build him higher, though Daniel Day Lewis and Joaquin Phoenix are definitely favorites this year.

Left to right: Brian Geraghty, Washington, and Don Cheadle
What does Washington need to do to solidify a spot in the Best Actor race? For starters, he needs to "shock" the audience. Not with jump scares or big reveals, but just emote the passion that made him so enigmatic early on. It could be considered a surprise comeback for an actor whose work has since become more commercial. The Academy would love a comeback story, and since they love flawed or damaged characters (see: John Hawkes in The Sessions), this could be an easy shoe in. This is of course provided that there aren't any further surprise nominees to dethrone him. At this point, Les Miserables, Hitchcock, and Silver Linings Playbook feature actors who have yet to gain traction, but easily could. Even Zero Dark Thirty could pull a surprise nomination. It is too early to tell.

For now, Washington's performance in Flight is an exciting addition to the Best Actor race. We have been dealing with obvious choices for weeks now, and to see the slots finally become open to questionable choices, we can discuss merits and why one is better than the other. Washington is exceptionally notable because of his credibility and previous wins. Also, as Argo proved a few weeks ago, sometimes films with empowering messages can get the biggest attention of them all. Argo, at very least, has proven that by its ability to be universally acclaimed and tell a story in a friendly way. Robert Zemeckis is a pro at that. This should be a shoe-in.

My faith in the other categories are low. Because of the reviews panning the more traditional narration, it may not even get more than an acting nomination. At most, the Best Original Screenplay field is a little open right now and it could sneak in there. However, this feels like too much of a traditional popcorn movie to get much traction elsewhere. So far, no costar has really stood out as an equally engaging performer, so Washington is on his own. It's just a matter of slighting everyone else in the next few months to get that spot.

Does Denzel Washington have what it takes to get the comeback nomination? Is Flight capable of being more than a popcorn film about alcoholism? Is Robert Zemeckis able to bring back the energy that made his work acclaimed and won him Best Picture with Gladiator? Is this all for nothing, as the Best Actor race will undoubtedly go to some actors from Silver Linings Playbook and Les Miserables?

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