“Flight” is a stirring, suspenseful and even hurtful portrait of alcoholism, but it is studio filmmaking that takes us for a ride, proving that some people need to embrace the edge to even stay upright.

“Flight” proves this so strongly in an early action scene that would befit “United 93.” Captain Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is a pilot who has just taken off into rocky, severe turbulence. He pushes the plane past its speed limits to break out of the storm into clear skies, but all the danger is necessary to stay safe. The twist is, he’s drunk as a skunk. He stayed awake the entire night in bed with one of his beautiful flight attendants and capped off the morning with some hits of cocaine, his way of instantly beating a hangover where an aspirin won’t do.

But nearing descent, the plane suffers a critical mechanical failure, and Whip executes a daring maneuver, turning the plane upside down to counter the rapid decline and carry into a glide. In the inevitable crash, only six of the 102 people onboard are killed, and Whip is hailed as a hero.

Whip’s dilemma is that if he were to embrace his heroic side by basking in the press, it would soon be revealed that he’s an addict and that he may have been responsible for the accident. It doesn’t matter that the plane was found to be faulty, and the news that no other pilot put through the same simulated conditions somehow hits a hollow note. What’s important is that we trust him and that he can trust himself.

Denzel Washington’s nuanced performance convinces us that Whip is a man in control and fully aware of his vices. He boldly asserts to his girlfriend Nicole (Kelly Reilly), another addict, that he chooses to drink and that he doesn’t need AA because he is the pilot charting his own course. We sympathize with Whip because few actors other than Washington could appear so effortlessly confident, and yet his actions remain questionable, his emotions remain guarded and his personality remains a mystery.

The movie is directed by Robert Zemeckis, making “Flight” the first live-action feature he’s directed since 2000’s “Cast Away.” Like that film, it’s about a man getting to know himself, isolated from the people he cares about, but it tells it all through moments of state of the art special effects and action. The flight scene in particular is done with a firm hand and clear eye, not the jumbled images of a man impaired. It provides the metaphor of being fully aware of our downward spiral and an inability to stop it.

In the same way Whip softens the blow of the crash, “Flight” succeeds brilliantly in telling this layered story with moments of levity and excitement. John Goodman is hilarious as an oafish drug dealer just as controlling of his reckless behavior as Whip. Rarely has a scene in which the hero of a drama hits rock bottom been this funny, but Goodman helps it hit just the right note.

Robert Zemeckis’s recent animated films have been a mixed bag to put it politely, but “Flight” is a wonderful return to form with a great story and performance at its core.

4 stars


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