Denzel Washington in Flight: A High Time or a Crash Landing?

Come for the great imperiled-plane scene, stay for a taut, surprising drama from director Robert Zemeckis

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Paramount Pictures

Just an ordinary day for Whip Whitaker. He wakes up after a night of booze, drugs and sex with a gorgeous flight attendant, does a line of coke, takes an angry phone call from his ex-wife and staggers to work. Captain Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is a pilot for SouthJet Airlines, and this morning he will be flying a plane from Orlando to Atlanta, if he can stay awake and lucid at the controls.

That trip, involving treacherous weather and engine failure that threaten the lives of the 102 people on board, climaxes in what may be the hairiest, scariest, most realistic and thrilling plane crash in movie history. But Robert Zemeckis’s Flight is determined to chart an even more turbulent course: Whip’s attempt to assume, or avoid, control of his addiction. When a post-crash toxicology report reveals a dangerous level of alcohol in his system and triggers an investigation, he is at risk of losing his job and his freedom.

Screenwriter John Gatins has said his script combined “my two greatest fears: drinking myself to death and dying in a plane crash.” Blending The High and the Mighty and The Lost Weekend — or, from this year’s movies, The Grey and Smashed — Flight at its best marks an advance for its director and a triumph for its star.

(READ: Corliss on Denzel Washington in Book of Eli)

A former Navy pilot with exceptional skills and daredevil instincts, Whip is a natural high flyer, in the air and on land. Alcohol and cocaine are his essential fuel. The coke, he believes, sharpens his senses in the cockpit; the booze (he pours himself a screwdriver while speaking to the passengers early in the Orlando-to-Atlanta run) steadies his nerves and dulls the pain of his troubled life. Indeed, Whip’s wits as the plane torpedoes toward earth saves lives and makes him a national hero — even as the pressure of the investigation gives him one more reason to drink. Recovering alcoholics would say that Whip is in flight from himself. And that flight can’t stay aloft forever, which suggests another title for the film: Crash Landing.

This is the first live-action feature for Zemeckis since Cast Away in 2000; for the past dozen years the director has lived in, and expanded, the faux universe of motion-capture (The Polar Express, Beowulf, A Christmas Carol). Recall that Chuck Noland, the Tom Hanks character in Cast Away, survived a plane crash and faced awful solitude on a deserted island — a Robinson Crusoe with no Friday. Whip, no less isolated psychologically than Chuck is spatially, has plenty of people ready to help him maintain his national-hero status and sidestep prison. In a way, the two movies are replays of classic 1950s Westerns at opposite poles: Fred Zinnemann’s Oscar-winning High Noon, where Sheriff Gary Cooper confronts the bad guys alone after the townspeople have deserted him, and Howard Hawks’s Rio Bravo, where Sheriff John Wayne sheriff accumulates more ragtag deputies than he wants or needs.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Robert Zemeckis’s Beowulf)

Whip wants Trina (Nadine Velasquez), the flight-attendant girlfriend who shares his bed and heart, in part because she’s as addicted as he is. Other enablers surround Whip like wingmen: Charlie Henderson (Bruce Greenwood), an old Navy buddy who runs the pilots’ union; Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle), the crafty lawyer Charlie hires to quash the toxicology report and steer Whip through the investigation; and Harling Mays (John Goodman), Whip’s boisterous best friend — read: coke dealer — who figures the hair of the dog is just the antidote for an incriminating binge. Hell, it helped Whip maneuver the plane and save lives, didn’t it?

With friends like these, Whip needs enemies — denouncers of the mess he’s been making of his life. Some are loved ones, like his ex-wife (Garcelle Beauvais) and teenage son (Justin Martin), who endured his transgressions until they had to banish him. Others are fellow sufferers in Whip’s Hell, like the sad junkie Nicole (Kelly Reilly), who has supported her taste for “Taliban”-level heroin by working as a masseuse — “every kind of masseuse there is.” After an overdose, she’s been sent to the Atlanta hospital where he is recovering from his crash injuries. Nicole has already hit the bottom that Whip has been circling over for decades, avoiding a landing. She has resolved to go straight, which tests her romance with the handsome airman-alcoholic who defiantly boasts, “I choose to drink.”

(READ: James Poniewozik’s location report on Cast Away)

Whip, it’s clear, is a great pilot but not a good one — a man of personal power and emotional helplessness. Reflecting this dichotomy, Flight seesaws between two types of heroes: the ones in movies and the ones in real life. In action films, the right kind of renegade can break all the rules and still win the game. His demons give him the edge he needs to achieve impossible feats that mortal men would be too timid or sane even to consider. And in old Westerns like Rio Bravo and Cat Ballou, the drunken gunslinger could beguile audiences with his stuporous amiability. But that’s just on the screen. Most actual airline passengers would prefer a reliable, responsible, everyday pilot to a coked-up dude with reckless charisma; the addict would be a danger to the souls on board and to himself.

So the suspense here comes not just from guessing whether Whip will ace the big public hearing conducted by a sharp federal inquisitor (Melissa Leo) but also in figuring out what kind of movie Flight is: an action picture or a Problem drama? The sympathetic portrait of a flawed hero or a denunciation of his weaknesses? Gatins’ and Zemeckis’s intent becomes evident toward the end of the film, but for the most part they keep the audience rooting uneasily for Whip to clear his name, if not his head, at the public hearing. The pilot’s fallibility, no less than his power and charm, put the moviegoer in his corner. Besides, he’s Denzel Drinkin’ Washington, who has played bad guys — he won an Oscar for Training Day — but more typically is the strong, haunted man audiences love to love. Washington’s nuanced performance is a tightrope walk between the Denzel whom people expect and the character he’s boldly burrowed into.

(READ: Richard Schickel on Denzel Washington in Training Day)

Flight has its own flaws, most of which can be forgiven. At times the supporting players (especially Goodman, who seems imported from a different movie, possibly The Big Lebowski) flutter around the star and do their acting thing. Yet they take smart advantage of their small chances to make a big impression — especially Cheadle, a soft-spoken sort who may be playing the Devil, and James Badge Dale, who’s dynamite in an unnecessary but impressive turn as the hospital’s chattiest cancer patient. Reilly, an English actress who played Jude Law’s wife in the two Sherlock Holmes films, could be a younger Juianne Moore or the correct answer to the Hollywood question: Does Jessica Chastain have to be in every movie? She’s fine too.

(READ: Gary Olman on TIME 100 honoree Jessica Chastain)

On the unforgivable side, there’s quite a bit of God talk, some of it from two Christians (“God landed that plane”) who get the derisive treatment that American movies routinely hand to evangelicals. That’s just lazy scriptwriting. And the pop songs on the sound track (“Feelin’ Alright,” “Sympathy for the Devil”) do a clumsy job of hammering home character points the viewer is already aware of.

Most of Flight, though, has a character sharpness and an openness to ambiguity that are rare in movies from big studios and commercially savvy directors. The film is rated R (“for drug and alcohol abuse, language, sexuality/nudity and an intense action sequence”), but it doesn’t parade its Restricted status; it probably could have won a softer rating with some trimming of the opening scene. It’s as if Zemeckis weren’t trying to game the system, as so many directors do to get a PG-13, but just figured this is a film for grownups and should get a rating that reflected its intentions.

(READ: Corliss on the politicizing of movie ratings)

The restless creator of gender-bending hits like the Back to the Future trilogy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Contact and the Oscar-winning Forrest Gump, Zemeckis has occasionally been criticized (by me, for example) for making films that are less than the sum of their technically innovative parts. This time, he has acutely fused two movie cultures, mainstream and indie, in a sensibility riskier than the studio norm and more muscular than the Sundance films. A canny director and a top star decided to dig deep to find the core of a compromised hero. And when they reach that center of gravity, Flight soars.