If "Flight" weren't so exceptionally crafted and acted, this tale of self-destruction and eventual redemption might feel like the sort of feel-good fare you'd see on the Lifetime Movie Network, or even a 12-step-program promotion.
Instead, director Robert Zemeckis' first live-action film since 2000's "Cast Away" is by turns thrilling, engrossing and even darkly funny, anchored by a tremendous performance from Denzel Washington. This is one of those Washington roles, like his Oscar-winning work in "Training Day," in which he exudes a potent mix of damage and bravado, control and danger, but he's so incredibly charismatic even as he does bad deeds that you can't help but root for him. Here, Zemeckis and screenwriter John Gatins have given him a deeply flawed character and placed him in a complicated situation, and allowed him to put the best of what he can do on display.
Washington stars as Whip Whitaker, a veteran airline pilot and serious alcoholic. When we first see him, he's waking up wasted and naked in a hotel outside the Orlando airport alongside an equally wasted and naked (and very sexy) flight attendant. A sip of beer, a hit off a joint, a line of coke and he's ready for his 9 a.m. flight — swaggering, commanding, even charming. Clearly, he's done this before.
But then a major mechanical failure en route to Atlanta forces him to pull off a daring crash landing in the middle of a field in a breathtakingly spectacular extended action sequence. (If you thought the plane crash in "Cast Away" was a doozy, this one's just as harrowing.) While the head flight attendant (Tamara Tunie) calmly, competently follows Whip's instructions, the deeply religious, judgmental co-pilot (Brian Geraghty) is useless as he panics and prays.
Afterward, Whip is rightly hailed as a hero for saving so many lives. But the subsequent federal investigation also reveals his rampant substance abuse, which only fortifies his denial. It's a murky area that allows a lot of room for us to debate within ourselves: Yes, the plane malfunctioned, but Whip didn't exactly belong in the cockpit in that state. Then again, no sober pilot could have achieved what he did, as if his looseness somehow kept him even-keeled.
While there are no easy answers, increasingly difficult questions keep cropping up. Bruce Greenwood, Don Cheadle and John Goodman all give strong supporting performances as the people around Whip who keep him functioning in various ways as the investigation (and hungry media hordes) close in around him. Greenwood exudes an easy Southern warmth as the union representative assigned to work with Whip, Cheadle is the all-business voice of reason as the hotshot lawyer flown in from Chicago to fend off criminal charges and Goodman is, unsurprisingly, a hilarious force of nature as Whip's pusher/enabler/friend.
Kelly Reilly, meanwhile, might be the weakest link in terms of character as the junkie who meets the divorced Whip in the hospital after an overdose. She sneaks a cigarette with him in the stairwell and moves in with him soon afterward in a romance that doesn't feel entirely believable. But the British actress, doing a solid Southern accent, finds a jittery fragility in the role that creates a tense dynamic opposite Washington's volatile bluster. And the scene in which they meet is a stunner, as they're joined by a cancer patient (a funny and moving James Badge Dale) who shares the wisdom he's achieved as he nears death.
Zemeckis finds just the right tone there, but frequently lays it on in a heavy-handed fashion that frustratingly keeps "Flight" from being a truly great film. This includes a distractingly Scorsese-esque, painfully literal use of rock songs to correspond with the action. (Goodman's character enters to the familiar opening lines of the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil," for example.)
And the uplifting coda needlessly spells out the hard-earned lessons that would have been more powerful had they been implied. Still, for the most part, "Flight" manages to achieve the tricky balance of functioning as a serious, adult drama that's also crowd-pleasing.
"Flight," a Paramount Pictures release, is rated R for drug and alcohol abuse, language, sexuality/nudity and an intense action sequence. Running time: 135 minutes.