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Movie Review: 'Flight'

Denzel Washington stars as the best airline pilot ever, and also the worst

Director: Robert Zemeckis
Rating R. Running Time: 139 mins.
Stars: Denzel Washington, John Goodman, Don Cheadle

An intensely personal drama told on an epic scale, Flight stars Denzel Washington as Whip Whitaker, a booze-and-cocaine-addicted airline pilot who nevertheless manages to show up for work each day. In fact, on one particularly bad day — and in one of the most intensely immersive scenes ever put on film — Whip pulls off a stupendously improbable landing as the plane virtually disintegrates around him.

The good news: Nearly everyone on board survives, and Whip becomes a national hero. The not-so-good news: Cocaine and alcohol are found in his blood after the accident, and no display of heroics in the world can mask his problem.

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spinner image Denzel Washington is Whip Whitaker in FLIGHT - Movie Review
Denzel Washington is Whip Whitaker, in "Flight."
Robert Zuckerman/Paramount Pictures

Of course, like so many substance abusers, Whip doesn't think he even has a problem. He spends most of the movie denying his out-of-control habits to everyone who challenges him, including a beautiful young heroin addict he meets in the hospital (Kelly Reilly), his ex-wife (Garcelle Beauvais), an old pilot buddy (Bruce Greenwood) and his lawyer (Don Cheadle). In fact, the only person with whom Whip can truly let his guard down is his cheerful drug connection, played by the ever-buoyant John Goodman.

Weaving along the booze-soaked trail that so many great film actors have navigated before him, Washington gives a career-defining performance, right up there with Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend, Jack Lemmon in Days of Wine and Roses, and Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas. So good is he, in fact, that we begin to share the other characters' sheer fatigue from merely being around him: at well over two hours, Flight could use perhaps one or two fewer scenes of Whip on yet another bender.

But then, the adrenaline rush provided by director Robert Zemeckis in Flight's first 20 minutes is more than enough to keep us riveted through the more subtle dramas that follow. Not since Paul Greengrass sat us in the coach section for his 9/11 drama United 93 has a filmmaker so effectively summoned up the primal fears that, for the less air-worthy of us, lurk beneath every lurch, every "fasten your seat belts" warning. As Whip progressively loses control of his suddenly diving aircraft, Zemeckis makes great use of that plastic-grinding-against-plastic cabin sound — you know, the one that causes you to suspect the whole plane is twisting in on itself like a wrung dishrag. (Or is it just me?)

Zemeckis, whose entire career has been built on innovative use of special effects (Forrest GumpWho Framed Roger RabbitContact), pours everything he's got into creating the unique hell of a crashing airplane, but never more powerfully than with his tight-in shots: a hand battling a control stick; a child tumbling to the ceiling of the inverted cabin; a flight attendant's foot wedged into the hinge of an overhead compartment.

In short: I'm doubting you'll find Flight among the movie selections on your next cross-country air trip.

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Zemeckis goes to great lengths to inject the subject of faith into Flight, and I can't quite figure out why. The main characters are all dismissive of belief, almost angrily so. When Whip's lawyer invokes the term "act of God," it's purely as a legal dodge that could clear the airline of culpability in the crash.

When Whip's devout copilot and his wife punctuate their discussion of the crash with exclamations of "Praise Jesus!" they do so at awkward moments that seem aimed at eliciting laughter from the audience. As the crash investigation proceeds, it becomes clear that everyone on that plane would have walked away — if only the wing had not at the last second clipped a church steeple. In the end, I came away wondering if Zemeckis wants us to contemplate the notion that religious faith is a crutch not too far removed from alcoholism and drug addiction.

Ironic, because from beginning to end, Flight is something of a cinematic miracle.

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