Denzel Washington at his best in 'Flight,' tangling with morality

It's unlikely the Pilots Association will put its seal of approval on Flight, a high-wire drama about a commercial airline captain - Denzel Washington, in an extraordinary, Oscar-worthy performance - who crash-lands a jet carrying "102 souls." In a feat of aeronautic ingenuity, Whip Whitaker rights a nose-first descent, bringing his crippled plane down across a field, clipping a church steeple before hitting the turf. Six people, including two crew members, die. But 96 live.

Washington's Whitaker, a veteran in the U.S. Navy, the grandson of a crop-duster pilot who was one of the fabled Tuskegee Airmen, looks like a hero.

And then they look at his blood tests. Not only were his alcohol levels off the charts, the tests also show he had been using cocaine before the flight left Orlando for Atlanta. The audience is already keenly aware of this fact: Flight, bracingly directed by Robert Zemeckis, begins with the alarm buzzing in Whip's motel room, where he has spent the night in the company of a coworker, flight attendant Katerina Marquez (Nadine Velazquez). It's an orgy scene of substance abuse.

Flight, with its surprisingly raw depiction of binge drinking, of the ingestion of illegal drugs - and, in the case of a hard-luck Atlanta masseuse, the injection of drugs - is a movie about addiction. In the stairwell of a hospital where Whip is recovering from his crash injuries, and where he has gone to sneak a cigarette (yes, he's a chain smoker, too), he meets Nicole (Kelly Reilly), the aforementioned masseuse, a heroin overdose case. A third patient, a guy with cancer, shows up, and the discussion turns to God, and the belief that nothing in life comes by hazard, by chance. There is a grand design, even if it includes plane crashes and cancer.

Flight, then, examines the nature of faith - and the failures and flaws of human beings, plagued by self-deception, self-destruction. It's no accident that SouthJet Air Flight 227 hits a Pentecostal church on its way down, that the passenger manifest is full of "souls," that Whip's handling of the broken plane is described as "nothing short of a miracle," and that his copilot is a born-again Christian.

And that John Goodman, playing Whip's dysfunctional best buddy, a boisterous Big Lebowski wannabe with a duffel bag full of booze and coke, arrives accompanied by the voodoo intro to the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil." The horizon line of Flight is defined by Heaven and Hell.

Washington, as he demonstrated in Training Day, is at his best when he is exploring moral compromise and corruption, when he plays someone gone bad, given in to temptation, to despair. The road to redemption in Flight is an exceedingly rocky one, and Zemeckis is smart enough to have us believe for a time that Whip might never get there. After experimenting with mega-million "performance capture" projects for the last decade (The Polar Express, A Christmas Carol, Beowulf), it's nice to see the filmmaker capturing some real performances.

If Goodman seems cranked up a little too much, the others in the cast - the British actress Reilly, Don Cheadle as a lawyer hired to rep Whip, Bruce Greenwood as the head of the pilots union, and Velazquez and Tamara Tunie as flight attendants - seem perfectly in step with the screenplay's pace and purpose.

Flight is neither a simple story of heroism, nor one of a fallen hero. Things are more complex than that - and it is its complexities that make the film all the more rewarding an experience.


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Directed by Robert Zemeckis. With Don Cheadle, John Goodman, Bruce Greenwood, Kelly Reilly, Denzel Washington, Melissa Leo. Distributed by Paramount Pictures.

Running time: 2 hours, 19 minutes.

Parent's guide: R (for drug and alcohol abuse, language, sexuality/nudity and an intense action sequence).