Denzel Washington gives nuanced performance as addict hero in 'Flight'

“Flight,” Robert Zemeckis’ return to live-action filmmaking after nearly a decade of animated films, is mostly a slick and smooth ride, marred by only a few unnecessary jolts of turbulence.

Denzel Washington is hotshot commercial airline pilot Captain Whip Whitaker, a divorced alcoholic and cocaine addict. After a bender, Whip is piloting a jet from Orlando to Atlanta when the plane inexplicably begins to fail. Drunk and high on cocaine, Whip instinctively flips the plane, recovering its altitude before crash landing in a field. With minimal casualties, the event seems nearly impossible to have occurred with any survivors and Whip is hailed as a hero.

That is until an investigation is opened and Whip’s supposed drug abuse comes into question, thrusting the pilot into a tailspin toward a personal crash and burn.

Robert Zemeckis sheds his recent family-film persona and delivers a taut drama laced with sex, drugs and rock and roll. “Flight” is a dark character study about the effects of alcoholism and cocaine use. Zemeckis and screenwriter John Gatins dig beneath the surface of the disease, showing the effects on those surrounding Whip, including his friends, ex-wife and son. But Zemeckis and Gatins take it one step further and show how the airline covers up Whip’s addiction in order to protect their reputation and bypass a severe lawsuit.

“Flight” is a taut story, so much so that by half way through the film it’s easy to forget the incredible opening flight sequence and find yourself wrapped up in a more intense situation with Washington’s character. At first, the film poses some really interesting questions: was it the cocaine use that made Whip so instinctive and alert to know to invert the plane, or was he just the greatest pilot to have ever stepped foot in a commercial airliner? But that question is quickly dropped to focus on Whip’s emotional and psychological downfall as the press and investigators close in on him. What if the answer is Whip's coke addiction saved the day? We’d have quite a different film and message here, no?

Denzel Washington is phenomenal as Whitaker. On the surface Whip is a completely unlikeable jerk, but Washington subtly imbues empathy so that by the end of the film it’s hard not to be torn between rooting for his freedom and demanding retribution. His nuanced performance is an ebb and flow of sobriety and intoxication, anger and remorse. Whip is not a superhero, he’s bitter, obnoxious, petulant and dismissive – he’s human – which is fascinating to watch. But viewers may be turned off by a protagonist this coarse with little wiggle room for redemption.

Zemeckis, like Steven Spielberg, excels at creating exciting and large set pieces. The entire flight sequence is hot with white knuckle suspense. If you have ever flown in a plane before, Zemeckis does a brilliant job in this scene reminding us how vulnerable we really are. This scene is a highly memorable and frightening sequence that may become classic movie moment.

But Zemeckis can’t keep his big blockbuster tricks from imposing on the remainder of this quiet character study. So many movies, big action movies in particular, cheaply rely on conveniences and coincidences in the plot to move the action along. Unfortunately “Flight” suffers from this in a few places. It is minimal, mind you, but still frustrating. One such incident is before Whip’s inquiry. He is quarantined under guard in a hotel so that he can remain sober. But the unbelievable – more unbelievable than a man flipping a plane over and landing it safely – is that the adjoining hotel room door is left open a crack and seemingly calling to Whip from the other room is a fully stocked mini fridge.

Special attention should be made to Kelly Reilly. She gives an excellent, subdued performance as Nicole Maggen, a woman also struggling with substance abuse. After a near-fatal overdose, Nicole is admitted into a hospital where she meets Whip after the crash. Watching Washington and Reilly’s performances as two drug addicts coming together and then passing like ships in a stormy night is really the meat of the film.

“Flight” is Zemeckis’ best film since “Castaway.” His directorial efforts feel much more comfortable with live-action filmmaking than his animated films. And having Denzel Washington as your leading man can never hurt, either.