YOU'LL HAVE no trouble spotting the double entendre in "Flight," a stunning drama featuring Denzel Washington as an airplane pilot who's at once a hero and an addict.
Washington's "Whip" Whitaker is a pilot who doesn't have to be at 20,000 feet to be high. That's the obvious reference, and it's presented here with subversive nerve: Whip's actually a better pilot than most when he's found the right mixture of alcohol and cocaine.
But there's yet a third meaning to the movie's title, and we see it kick in after the bravura crash-landing sequence that director Robert Zemeckis uses to open the movie, wherein the born-to-fly Whitaker makes a series of fantastic and unprecedented maneuvers to save a crippled airliner from nose-diving into the ground. (The sequence is simply dazzling. It's a white-knuckle thrill and a technical triumph, but also note the amazing amount of character information that Zemeckis manages to impart with deft visual touches.)
Whitaker doesn't save everybody, but he saves many, and the flight data recorder leaves an incontrovertible record of the pilot's moxie and innovative genius.
Now, about that blood-alcohol level . . .
Whitaker skips town as soon as he can walk out of the hospital. He knows he saved lives, but he also know he was stoned, so he flees the swarming press corps and hides out on the now-abandoned farm where he learned his seat-of-the-pants flying on crop dusters.
He surfaces to meet with his union boss (Bruce Greenwood) and heavy-hitting union attorney (Don Cheadle), who are trying to have his toxicology report suppressed. In this, they have the support of the airline owner (Peter Gerety), who would like to deflect liability in the lawsuits sure to follow.
At this point the deeper meaning of the movie's title takes hold, and "Flight," we begin to see, is also a chronicle of evasion.
There is a fourth man involved in this process of deception: Whitaker's drug dealer, played with Falstaffian joy by John Goodman. It's his job to provide Whitaker with just the right cocktail of chemical confidence to keep him flying level as investigators close in (the Federal Aviation Administration, led by Melissa Leo, is circling the truth).
For Whitaker, finding advocates to lie on his behalf is the easy part. Deceiving himself is harder, and we see him slowly unravel at home, where he takes up with a fellow addict (Kelly Reilly), but even she flinches at his binge of self-destruction.
Washington is phenomenally good in this role, and it could not have been an easy one for him to choose. He's the closest thing we have these days to a Golden Age star. He has such gravity and authority that people do not like to see him fail, and I think he senses this.
And "Flight" is not like "Training Day," an against-type exercise wherein you could see Washington revel in being "bad." There are moments in "Flight" when he steps entirely outside his well-known zone of cool and his natural dignity. But it's not a stunt, or some self-serving showcase. He's taking us somewhere. To a riveting moment of truth wherein Whitaker understands that landing that doomed plane will not be his biggest test in life.
This is one of the best things Washington's ever done. Ditto for Zemeckis, for whom "Flight" might be seen as a piece with the reach and ambition of "Forrest Gump" and "Cast Away," his underrated study of a shipwrecked man whose isolation takes on a spiritual dimension.
There is a hint of this in "Flight" - talk of the "souls" on board, the way the faltering plane clips a church steeple, the way Whip interacts with his fundamentalist co-pilot, the strange conversation he has with a dying man (James Badge Dale) in a hospital stairwell and the way the soundtrack invokes "Sympathy for the Devil."
The result is a movie that resonates deeply. Its moral autopsy of a crash and its aftermath of butt-covering and blame-shifting is ideally suited to our time.
Contact movie critic Gary Thompson at 215-854-5992 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog at philly.com/KeepItReel.