‘Flight:’ Denzel Washington Soars in Robert Zemeckis’ Awards-Season Contender (MOVIE REVIEW)

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A slug of whisky, a line of coke, and that’s breakfast for airline pilot Whip Whitaker waking up in an Orlando hotel room next to a curvaceous flight attendant.

This is the opening scene of Flight, Robert Zemeckis’ compelling new character study starring Denzel Washington in one of his strongest performances to date.

Whitaker makes his 9 am flight and takes off in a storm, coolly navigating through turbulence and onto smooth sailing bound for Atlanta.

What’s not so smooth is Whitaker mixing vodka with his morning OJ, putting his passengers in peril again. But then he saves them following an equipment failure, employing a maneuver few pilots could execute without crashing.

Back on the ground, he is hailed a hero, albeit one wanted for manslaughter after toxicology reports show cocaine and alcohol in his system.

The crash landing in Flight, as you’ve probably heard by now, is hair-raising twenty minute sequence in which things get progressively worse to the point of certain death.

The problem is it’s a high point that fits uncomfortably with the rest of the movie – a Bond-like set piece in the middle of an intimate character study about a man coming to terms with alcoholism.

That being said, it’s a hell of a plane crash, (though see United 93 for a crash that achieves similar results for a fraction of the cost).

Following this sequence, Flight sags as screenwriter John Gatins, a former actor, focuses more on character than plot, leaving Whitaker only two direction to go in – self-annihilation or salvation. And this being a studio movie, guess which path he chooses.

Whitaker moves to his family farm, away from the prying press, in the company of a heroin addict (Kelly Reilly) he met in the hospital. There, he confronts his demons, visits AA, gets drunk, sleeps with the addict, gets sober, falls off the wagon – in short, all the convolutions we’ve seen countless movie drunks go through from as far back as Billy Wilder’s classic The Lost Weekend to last month’s indie movie Smashed.

With Flight, Robert Zemeckis returns from his sojourn in the wilderness of mo-cap, having directed Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carolusing the cutting-edge computer technique to create eerily un-lifelike results.

It’s a trilogy of impressive technical virtuosity. But despite its innovation, it’s also a trilogy of mediocrity. While he’s made a few pop classics along the way, (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump), audiences don’t expect to be challenged by a Zemeckis movie, and they won’t be challenged here.

What appears to be a quandary about a pilot saving a plane full of passengers from certain death while under the influence, isn’t really a quandary at all. Given the choice of flying with a teetotaler with average skills or a drunken ace, most of us would probably go with the teetotaler.

In the end, Flight concludes that regardless of his heroics, Whitaker betrayed the public trust. It’s the right conclusion and, it seems, a painfully obvious one.

But if the conclusions reached are obvious, it’s the getting there that counts. The audience gets there by way of Washington who, over the years, has demonstrated a broad acting range but is never so compelling as when he has a chip on his shoulder – guys like Hurricane Carter, Malcolm X and Detective Alonzo Harris from Training Day, for which he won the Oscar.

Washington is unapologetic in his portrayal of Whitaker, swaggering through scenes as if he has it all under control, only he doesn’t. And in the back of his mind, he knows it.

But still, he doesn’t seem alarmed by his descent. His denial is convincing enough for him to think he can keep on drinking and flying as he always has.

Coaching him through his case with the FAA, is attorney Hugh Lang (a buttoned down Don Cheadle) and, in emergency situations only, Harling Mays (John Goodman), as Whitaker’s drug dealing pal – a holdover from the sixties with the right prescription, no matter the malady.

In some ways, Mays presents the movie’s biggest quandary – a renegade we’re meant to find endearing and funny even as he chops out lines for his drug-addled friend. How did a dealer get such soft treatment in a mainstream movie about substance abuse? The surprise isn’t the portrayal, but that it wasn’t checked by someone at the studio.

Flight is being positioned for awards season, and don’t be surprised if Washington gets nominated. But performance and plane crash aside, in a climate of fewer and fewer quality mainstream movies, Flight looks like a winner simply by not being terrible.

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