Just in time for the holiday travel season, "Flight" brings audiences perhaps the most harrowing scenes of a troubled airplane ever committed to film.
With nerve-racking authenticity, director Robert Zemeckis known for his wizardry with computer-generated illusions in films like "Forrest Gump" and "The Polar Express" puts viewers on board the routine 52-minute short hop that will have life-changing repercussions for ace pilot Whip Whitaker.
Portrayed by Denzel Washington with his characteristic somber focus, Whip is introduced in the film's opening sequences waking up after a night of hard partying, clearing his head with a swig of beer, a joint and a couple of lines of cocaine. Just another day on the commuter-flight circuit, until a dab of turbulence and a defective plane send Whip, his crew and his passengers on a spectacularly terrifying controlled dive from which the pilot will emerge a hero. Only a handful of people know that he's a sullied Sullenberger gifted with razor-sharp instincts and reflexes, to be sure, but also harboring addictions that threaten to devour him.
The tensions between that heavy shadow material and the better angels of Whip's nature make up the dramatic fulcrum of "Flight," even though it's that breathtaking sequence on the plane that will understandably generate the most chatter.
Flawlessly staged by Zemeckis to evoke the full, devastating physical and emotional impact of such an episode, it avoids morbid spectacle by focusing on small human moments, from a flight attendant risking her life to strap in a young child to Whip suggesting to another that she tell her son she loves him "for the black box."
That attendant, by the way, is played by Tamara Tunie, in one of several outstanding supporting performances in "Flight."
Although the film presents an assured star turn from Washington who seems to become more bloated and bleary as Whip's fight between denial and recovery grows more heightened it benefits just as much from the ensemble backing him: Kelly Reilly as a sweet young woman Whip meets in the hospital; Bruce Greenwood and Don Cheadle as the union representative and attorney, respectively, who try to assist Whip with the aftermath of the crash landing; John Goodman providing comic relief as Whip's good-time-Charlie dealer and Melissa Leo in a brief but spot-on appearance as a tough transportation board official who may be the only person able to call him on the swagger and bluff that have gotten Whip so far for so long.
Cut from the same cloth of addiction-denial-recovery dramas (most recently "Smashed," which plays like a "Days of Wine and Roses" for millennials), "Flight" hinges on the question of whether Whip will finally accept the reality of his disease or succumb to it.
The twist is that the arrogance and illusion of invulnerability that could keep him from saving his own life are the very qualities that help make him an excellent pilot. Washington plays those contradictions with a combination of showboating and subtlety, managing to earn the audience's sympathy even when Whip is at his most out of control and narcissistic.
What's more, Zemeckis reins in the story's potential for moralizing and melodrama, instead delivering a refreshingly sophisticated, mature human drama. Drunks are notoriously tiresome company in real life, but "Flight" is terrifically entertaining, both as a you-are-there action flick and the deeper psychological thriller it becomes.
As for all those impending trips over the next few months: Safe travels, everyone.
★ ★ ★ 1/2
Cast: Denzel Washington, Tamara Tunie, Don Cheadle, John Goodman, Melissa Leo
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Rated R (Contains drug and alcohol abuse, profanity, sexuality, nudity and an intense action sequence)