First lesson learned from Flight: Never take Denzel Washington for granted. After making his bones with Glory, Malcolm X and The Hurricane, and winning a Best Actor Oscar for 2001's Training Day, Washington settled into a groove of action films (Safe House, Unstoppable). With the exception of 2007's incisive American Gangster, they relied more on his star power than his acting skills. Flight reminds us of what Washington can do when a role hits him with a challenge that would floor a lesser actor. He's a ball of fire, and his detailed, depth-charged, bruisingly true performance will be talked about for years.
Washington, 57, plays Capt. Whip Whitaker, a commercial pilot with a jones for hooch and blow, on the job as well as off. His marriage is a casualty, along with his relationship with his only son. Can Whip stay up all night doing drinks, drugs and sex with a hottie flight attendant (Nadine Velazquez) and still make his 9 a.m. flight to Atlanta? He can. Can he sneak vodka on board in an orange juice container and still fly in a blinding rainstorm? He can.
But do you want him to? That's the big question that Washington, screenwriter John Gatins and director Robert Zemeckis keep working like a wound. After Zemeckis spent the past 12 years experimenting with performance-capture animation (Polar Express, yikes!), it's good to have him back in the live-action arena he deserted after Cast Away. Flight is Zemeckis at his most emotionally open and thematically provocative.
It also comes on like gangbusters. In the white-knuckle opener, Zemeckis nails us to our seats as a hungover Whip dozes, much to the horror of God-fearing co-pilot Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty). The suspense tightens when the jet's hydraulics fail and Whip – roused from his stupor by a line of coke – must literally turn the plane upside down to make an emergency landing. The raw panic is palpable. But what astonishes is Whip's unflappable cool, born of a lifetime on the job and, just maybe, Dutch courage. The sequence is a marvel of technical wizardry. But Zemeckis never lets FX crush the story's human scale. Six lives were lost on this flight. But 96 more were saved because Whip was flying high.
That is the ethical tightrope that Flight walks with keen intelligence. Whip is cheered as a hero, since 10 other pilots failed to duplicate his feat in simulations. Ironically, that fact enables him to drink more. He's invincible! Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a recovering junkie, shares his bed and tries to steer him toward rehab. But a shot at going cold turkey leads to the inevitable relapse.
Whip is a pawn. The airline and the pilots union want a cover-up. A hotshot lawyer (Don Cheadle) is hired to spin reports of Whip's high-octane blood-alcohol level at the crash site. At a public hearing, the head prosecutor (a superb Melissa Leo, her honeyed voice a lethal weapon) is determined to make someone accountable for those six lives lost. How can Whip get through an interrogation, especially the morning after a killer bender? The same way he landed the jet, with a little help from his dealer friend Harling (John Goodman, vividly funny and scary as a force of Dr. Feelgood nature).
At the hearing, Zemeckis has only to train his sights on Washington as he captures a soul in free fall. You might bitch that Flight levels off after its shocking, soaring start. But you'd be missing the point of an exceptional entertainment that Zemeckis shades into something quietly devastating – not an addiction drama, but the deeper spectacle of a man facing the truth about himself. God isn't Whip's co-pilot. His jet even clipped off the steeple of a church on its way down. Whip is a man alone. And all you need to know about him is mirrored in Washington's eyes. Zemeckis couldn't invent a digital effect to match an image that hypnotic, that haunting.