It's unlikely that any pilots association will put its seal of approval on "Flight," a high-wire drama about a commercial airline captain -- Denzel Washington, in an extraordinary, Oscar-worthy performance -- who crash-lands a jet carrying "102 souls."
In a feat of aeronautic ingenuity, Whip Whitaker rights a nose-first descent, bringing his crippled plane down across a field, clipping a church steeple before hitting the turf. Six people, including two crew members, die. But 96 live. Washington's Whitaker, a veteran of the Navy, the grandson of a crop-duster pilot who was one of the fabled Tuskegee Airmen, looks like a hero.
And then they look at his blood tests. Not only were his alcohol levels off the charts, the tests show he had been using cocaine before the flight left Orlando, Fla., for Atlanta.
The audience is already keenly aware of this fact: "Flight," bracingly directed by Robert Zemeckis, begins with the alarm buzzing in Whip's motel room, where he has spent the night in the company of a co-worker, flight attendant Katerina Marquez (Nadine Velazquez). It's an orgy scene of substance abuse.
"Flight," with its surprisingly raw depiction of binge drinking, of the ingestion of illegal drugs -- and, in the case of a hard-luck Atlanta masseuse, the injection of drugs -- is a movie about addiction. In the stairwell of a hospital where Whip is recovering from his crash injuries, and where he has gone to sneak a cigarette
There is a grand design, even if it includes plane crashes and cancer.
"Flight," then, examines the nature of faith -- and the failures and flaws of human beings, plagued by self-deception, self-destruction. It's no accident that SouthJet Air Flight 227 hits a Pentecostal church on its way down, that the passenger manifest is full of "souls," that Whip's handling of the broken plane is described as "nothing short of a miracle," and that his co-pilot is a born-again Christian.
And that John Goodman, playing Whip's dysfunctional best buddy, a boisterous Big Lebowski wannabe with a duffel bag full of booze and coke, arrives accompanied by the voodoo intro to the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil." The horizon line of "Flight" is defined by heaven and hell.
Washington, as he demonstrated in "Training Day," is at his best when he is exploring moral compromise and corruption, when he plays someone gone bad, given in to temptation, to despair. The road to redemption in "Flight" is an exceedingly rocky one, and Zemeckis is smart enough to have us believe for a time that Whip might never get there. After experimenting with mega-million "performance capture" projects for the past decade ("The Polar Express," "A Christmas Carol," "Beowulf"), it's nice to see the filmmaker capturing some "real" performances.
If Goodman seems cranked up a little too much, the others in the cast -- the British actress Reilly, Don Cheadle as a lawyer hired to rep Whip, Bruce Greenwood as the head of the pilot's union, and Velasquez and Tamara Tunie as flight attendants -- seem perfectly in step with the screenplay's pace and purpose.
"Flight" is neither a simple story of heroism, nor one of a fallen hero. Things are more complex than that -- and it is its complexities that make the film all the more rewarding an experience.
'flight' * * * ½
Rated: R (for language, sexuality, adult themes and heavy drug use)
Cast: Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, John Goodman
and Don Cheadle
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Running time: 2 hours, 18 minutes