It’s not all about the crash.
“Flight” is set in motion by a horrific and exhilarating plane crash, but don’t be fooled into thinking this is a disaster movie.
Generally, in a disaster movie the crash/storm/explosion/alien invasion sets the stage for a dramatic rescue or escape, which takes up the rest of the movie.
The crash in “Flight,” however, sets in motion a fascinating character study of an alcoholic who can’t pull out of his own personal free fall.
Denzel Washington stars as Whip Whitaker, a charismatic veteran pilot who is also a functioning alcoholic. Whip drinks before, after and during his flights — but not to worry, he balances it with cocaine to keep himself sharp.
In the spectacular early sequence, Whip guides a crippled plane in for a crash landing that leads to fatalities … and while he’s in the hospital, the authorities do a little substance abuse test on his blood.
Is he a hero or a villain? Both? Are the surviving passengers a credit to his piloting skill, or are the dead ones a result of his drinking? If he hadn’t been drinking, would he have tried the risky maneuver that might have saved the flight? The questions are complicated.
Once the crash investigation begins, the film moves into the familiar territory of the traditional addiction movie, though the layered and powerful performance by Washington lifts it into the above-average category.
Washington plays Whip with self-righteousness, pain and desperation. The character is compelling, but only occasionally sympathetic, as he pushes away those closest to him with lies and denial.
Directed by Robert Zemeckis, on break from his animation obsession, “Flight” pushes Whip together with a beautiful drug addict, played by Kelly Reilly (“Sherlock Holmes”), who has already struck rock bottom and is looking for a way out.
Whip, however, isn’t ready for the same commitment.
Bruce Greenwood, as a pilot’s union rep, and Don Cheadle, as a legal shark, get plenty of screen time, but are one-dimensional foils for Washington.
John Goodman — is anyone else getting tired of him as the comic relief in seemingly EVERY movie released? — plays Whip’s happy-go-lucky drug-dealing enabler.
“Flight” will be disappointing to those expecting an action-adventure thriller. That’s not what it is. Addiction doesn’t thrill and it’s not always fun to watch on the screen, but Washington makes it interesting almost all the time.
Rental Recommendation: Robert Zemeckis’s last live-action picture was 2000’s “Cast Away,” which also started with a plane crash. Grade: B+
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Starring: Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, Bruce Greenwood
Rated: R (for drug and alcohol abuse, language, sexuality/nudity and an intense action sequence)
Running time: 138 minutes