Denzel Washington & New York Disasters

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By Suzanne Meyers

I’m adding my voice to those predicting Denzel Washington will win Best Actor in this year’s Oscar competition for his role as an alcoholic pilot in the new film Flight.  I’ll even the score with my ex-husband who, after leaving Training Day, days after the terror attacks in September 2001, correctly declared that the famous black actor would get that top honor for his role as a corrupt L.A. Detective.  Coinciding with the release of Flight, if there was a greater disaster than Hurricane Sandy since 9/11 in the New York area, I can’t name it. By chance, I was taken to see both films soon after these devastating events. As a bookish, white woman in her forties, action movies are never my thing. I’m more likely to be tucked in at home, re-watching a DVD of Howard’s End with my cat, Monk. Unforeseeably, Denzel’s characters in these two films mirror the zeitgeist of America with alacrity. They also seem to offer cogent evidence of synchronicity.

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Denzel now appears onscreen as a would-be hero who miraculously saves a plane full of people in a daring move that no other pilot could maneuver, but which  still claims the lives of six people. He performs this feat high on cocaine and booze. Despite the terrible storm and the mechanics of the plane failing, because of litigation he is scrutinized for pilot error and his alcoholism comes to light.  We can’t help but root for Denzel, who starts out badass and sinks lower as the film progresses. I see him as a symbol of our own nation, weary from a decade of war and a failed economy. Yet we were once so drunk on international power and bravado that we still wonder; how did we get here? Our hero, Atlanta-based pilot Whip Whitaker, seems to be equally confused. He did everything right- so why is this happening? Assisted by his attorney, played by the excellent Don Cheadle, he manages to both squash the post-crash toxicology report and enter “Act of God” as a factor in the plane coming down. Whitaker’s co-pilot, whose legs are crushed, echoes this will of God argument, and the film’s story is touched throughout by a southern Christian sentiment applied in brush strokes too subtle to ever really take hold, let alone exonerate our hero. As I watched the film, the “Act of God” rationale echoed strongly for a New Yorker like me, as my home city struggles with the disaster and loss of life currently surrounding us.

But in Flight, it is Whip’s weakness, his moral failure that brings his problems to a head. In the comeuppance scene, played before the NTSB investigation panel, Whip finally comes clean and, as he bravely admits, stops lying about his drinking. “Act of God” takes a distant place behind his admission of free will and personal responsibility. This film soberly straightens out the apparent chaos of life to reveal the connection between our moral failures and hubris that begets the lot that God, or karma, sends our way.

Eleven years earlier, the ultra talented Washington boldly strutted through the film Training Day. As Detective Alonzo he embodied the paternalistic, American foreign policy that has historically been in evidence since Theodore Roosevelt’s Big Stick ideology of 1901 and carried into modern times via Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs fiasco, Ronald Reagan’s Iran/Contra venture and up through the Bush Administration’s invasion of Iraq. With that “right justifies might” mentality on his side, Alonzo treats drug dealers the way our military took out Saddam Hussein – live outside the law and you will be taken out, due process be damned.

The only problem with that “by any means necessary” policy is it eventually catches up with the perpetrators. Alonzo, having made too many enemies of the same ilk, is gunned down at the end of the film.  I find this a sad corollary to our military men and women sent to do another clean up job in Iraq and Afghanistan, only to lose their lives in a lawless land. But Alonzo is fighting on a smaller playing field than that of the leaders in the White House and Pentagon who have innocent minions to fight their battles.

Is it a coincidence that Denzel shares his surname with our nation’s capital and helm of power? I know I’ll be keeping a close eye on Washington’s next move. After seeing Flight and living through Sandy, I can’t help but hope he will stop putting in these Oscar-caliber performances.  I don’t think New York can handle another of his cinematic hits.

 

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