“Flying High and Far From Dry”

Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle, Kelly Reilly
Directed by Robert Zemeckis

With so much attention being drawn to the fact that “Flight” represents Robert Zemeckis’ first live-action feature in twelve years (since 2000’s “Cast Away”), a far more important factor is being overlooked: specifically, that despite its high-flying title, “Flight” is actually more grounded in reality than any other movie in the Oscar-winning director’s incredible career. The fact that it’s also his first R-rated drama speaks volumes about its serious intentions (1980’s “Used Cars” also carried an R rating, but that was a comedy).

Mind you, that’s an impressive and illustrious career that’s comprised almost entirely of fun and beloved pop-cultural landmarks, many of which broke new ground in the area of special effects. After all, what would Hollywood movies be like today without the impact of classics like 1985’s “Back to the Future,” 1988’s “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” and, of course, 1994’s Best Picture-winner “Forrest Gump.”

But after spending the better part of the last decade refining (but never quite perfecting) the very expensive motion-capture process (with 2004’s “The Polar Express,” 2007’s “Beowulf” and 2009’s “A Christmas Carol”) – only to be surpassed by James Cameron’s game-changing “Avatar” – Zemeckis scales back considerably with “Flight.” The result is a gripping, deeply engaging and emotionally powerful drama that cost just $31 million to make and features Denzel Washington at the top of his game.

Washington plays Whip Whitaker, a rock-star airline pilot who can fly a commercial jet through the worst of weather conditions, but can’t quite navigate past the demons of his personal life. Both characteristics collide during one particularly ominous day, when Whitaker – drunk with a blood alcohol level of 0.24 (that’s three times the legal limit) and high on cocaine – miraculously averts a mid-air catastrophe, crash-lands his plane and saves almost everyone aboard.

But is Whitaker a hero like “Sully” Sullenberger, the American Airlines Captain who kept his cool and famously landed his troubled commercial jet in New York’s Hudson River in January of 2009? Or is he at fault, since he never should have gotten on that plane in the first place? Shouldn’t the brave actions he took under such duress be commended, since he saved almost everyone on the plane? Or should legal action be taken against him, since four passengers and two crew members perished under his watch?

These polarizing questions of morality will plague and haunt not only Whitaker, but also those around him who have a lot to lose – specifically, his old friend and flying colleague Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood), who now represents the pilot’s union; his attorney Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle), who tries to keep Whip’s drinking problem off the record; and his drug-dealer Harling Mays (John Goodman), who’s far too jovial to see that he’s a big part of the problem.

And after a horrifying plane crash sequence that has to be among the most intense ever filmed – at least, since “Cast Away” – “Flight” unexpectedly changes course to become a riveting character study about a man struggling (and failing miserably) to conquer his alcoholism. Along the way, Denzel Washington (who’s in every scene) gives an Oscar-worthy, tour-de-force performance that’s comparable to the great depictions of addiction in cinema, like Ray Milland in “The Lost Weekend,” Jack Lemmon in “Days of Wine and Roses” and Nicolas Cage in “Leaving Las Vegas.”

Washington’s talents are matched by an amazing supporting cast that includes Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood and – in his second scene-stealing turn of the year (after playing make-up artist John Chambers in “Argo”) – John Goodman. Special mention also goes to Kelly Reilly (“Sherlock Holmes”), whose breakthrough turn as a recovering addict is heartbreaking, and James Badge Dale (TV’s “The Pacific”), whose one crucial scene as a cancer patient puts it all into perspective.

Despite some contrivances and touches of melodrama found in the screenplay (written by John Gatins), “Flight” still soars high enough to qualify as one of the year’s very best movies. That makes it a welcome return to live action form for Robert Zemeckis, and if this is what we can expect when he makes realistic movies, here’s hoping that he stays grounded a lot more often.

-Scott Mantz