"Flight" joins a long list of movies including "The Lost Weekend," "The Days of Wine and Roses," "The Verdict," "Clean & Sober" and this year's Sundance Film Festival hit "Smashed" (arriving in theaters later this month) that spotlight the ravages of alcoholism and provide a showcase for an actor to sink his teeth into a really meaty role.
In "Flight," that actor is Denzel Washington, already established as one of our best and proving it again with a moving portrayal of a complex and prickly character whose moment of triumph is also the start of his descent to rock bottom.
Washington plays airline pilot William "Whip" Whitaker," who shows up for a morning flight shaking off the previous night's bender with a hit of cocaine to bring him up to consciousness. This chemical leveling-off is such a familiar ritual that Whip can easily pour vodka mini-bottles with one hand while calmly reassuring passengers from the galley.
Then disaster hits. The plane goes into a sudden nosedive, and Whip must try a risky flying maneuver to crash-land in a field. Of the 102 people on board, 96 survive a "miracle," Whip is constantly told, because all logic and expertise indicates that everyone on board should be dead.
The crash is breathtakingly realistic, thanks to the special-effects care applied by director Robert Zemeckis (making his first live-action movie since "Cast Away"), but it's really the biggest MacGuffin in movie history. It's, in the end, inconsequential to the real story, which centers on Whip's substance abuse and the competing forces to allow him to confront it or maintain denial.
On one side after the crash are enablers including a hotshot lawyer (Don Cheadle) trying to quash a toxicology report, a pilot's union rep (Bruce Greenwood) who flew with Whip in the military, and Whip's best friend/drug dealer, Harling (John Goodman) who helps Whip cover-up his boozing to serve their own interests.
On the other side is a rehabbing junkie, Nicole (played by British actress Kelly Reilly), whom Whip meets in the hospital after the crash. Nicole's character is a tricky one, veering from a damsel requiring Whip's rescue to a Jiminy Cricket trying to prick his conscience, and Reilly's performance hits all the right notes.
Zemeckis sometimes gets in the way of John Gatins' screenplay, telegraphing the emotional cues. This is particularly glaring on the soundtrack: Harling's entrance is accompanied by the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil," while a scene of Nicole shooting up comes with a double shot of heroin-related tunes, Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Under the Bridge" and a Cowboy Junkies cover of the Velvet Underground classic "Sweet Jane." The music does the feeling for us, depriving the audience of the chance of connecting with the characters for themselves.
But "Flight" is at heart Denzel Washington's show, and he makes the most of it. He digs deeply into the self-delusion of Whip's invincibility and the self-loathing when his world literally comes crashing down around him. It's a powerful performance that doesn't need any of Zemeckis' tricks to soar.
Denzel Washington's powerful performance raises this drama about a pilot facing his alcoholism.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens Friday, Nov. 2.
Rating • R for drug and alcohol abuse, language, sexuality/nudity and an intense action sequence.
Running time • 138 minutes.