Flight

Denzel Washington excels as a pilot whose heroics hide a very dark side.

After 12 years spent mucking about in the motion-capture playpen, Robert Zemeckis parachutes back to where he belongs, in big-time, big-star, live-action filmmaking, with Flight. A gritty, full-bodied character study of a man whose most exceptional deed might have resulted from his most flagrant flaw, this absorbing drama provides Denzel Washington with one of his meatiest, most complex roles. World premiering as the closing-night attraction at the 50th New York Film Festival, the Paramount release will be welcomed warmly by audiences in search of thoughtful, powerful adult fare.

Onscreen nearly the entire running time, Washington plays Whip Whitaker, a middle-aged pilot for a Southern regional airline who knows his stuff and still can get away with behaving half his age. In the raw opening scene, he's lying in bed in Orlando at 7 a.m. after an all-night booze, drugs and sex marathon with a hot flight attendant. With a little help from some white powder, he reassures her they will make their 9 o'clock flight for Atlanta.

The gripping 20-minute interlude that follows has in every way been orchestrated brilliantly by Zemeckis and will mesmerize and terrify audiences in a manner that will make the film widely talked about, a must-see for many and perhaps a must-avoid for a few. The 102 passengers strap in for what could be a bumpy flight. Rain is pelting, but it's all in a day's work for Whip, who settles into the cockpit and greets a new co-pilot (Brian Geraghty) while sneaking two bottles' worth of onboard vodka into his orange juice.

With his night's companion, Katerina (Nadine Velazquez), working the passenger compartment, Whip zooms up into the clouds, shaking up the passengers and scaring the co-pilot as he rams at top speed toward a pocket of clear sky. Having achieved momentary calm, Whip falls asleep at the controls but not for long: The jet suddenly plunges into an uncontrolled descent, its engines on fire. After lowering the landing gear and dumping fuel, Whip creates total chaos on board by inverting the plane, manually forcing it to fly upside down to achieve stability before righting the ship at the last minute to attempt an emergency landing in a field.

This breath-shortening sequence is eye-poppingly realistic, with cutting Eisenstein would have admired, right down to the exquisite details of Jehovah's Witnesses scrambling to get out of the way as the plane's wing clips the steeple of their rural church. Miraculously, the plane lands more or less intact, though six people die. His daring and ingenuity having saved most of the passengers from certain death, Whip becomes a national hero.

But this is not a role Whip is keen to embrace. Depressed to learn Katerina was among those killed, he's visited by old flying buddy and now pilots-union rep Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood) as well as his drug dealer Harling Mays (John Goodman). At the same time, Whip meets Nicole (Kelly Reilly), an addict hospitalized after an overdose, for whom he develops a certain affinity.

Anxious to avoid the lurking media, Whip slips away to his family farm to hide out. His father's Cessna in which Whip learned to fly still is in the barn and the cabinets are full of booze, which he methodically pours out. Meanwhile, a tempest of trouble awaits as he learns what he already had to know: Toxicological tests have revealed the booze and coke in his system at the time of the crash, which could result in serious prison time.

From this point on, the original screenplay by John Gatins (Coach Carter, Real Steel) closely charts the ups and downs of Whip's addiction, a struggle he shares with Nicole. When Whip learns what's in store for him legally, he hits the bottle again just as Nicole goes on the wagon. Whip also resists the help of attorney Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle), a stiff and humorless man who's obviously good at his job as he paves the way for his client to get off if he behaves himself. That, then, becomes the major question as he approaches a big public hearing, along with whether Whip can cut through layers of self-protection and denial to finally confront his devils.

The close scrutiny of Whip's internal currents cuts two ways, on one hand investing the drama with a deeply explored central character but on the other weighing it down a bit too much with familiar addiction issues for which possible answers are ultimately limited and clear-cut. The script commendably advances the notion that Whip had the cojones to make his bold move to save the plane because he was high but then perhaps prolongs the search for exactly how he'll have to pay the price. At 138 minutes, the film takes a bit longer than necessary to do what it needs.

But Washington keeps it alive and real at all times as a man who would seem to have had things his way most of his life and never has been forced to take a clear-eyed look at himself. The actor hits notes that are tricky and nuanced and that he has never played before, contributing to a large, layered performance that defines the film.

Reilly (Sherlock Holmes), Greenwood, Goodman and Cheadle are solid in functional supporting roles. As a live-action director, Zemeckis hasn't lost a step during his long layoff; even though most of the settings are prosaic and unphotogenic -- hotel and hospital rooms, downscale dwellings, conference rooms -- he and cinematographer Don Burgess deliver bold, well-conceived images that flatter the actors. The exceptional and seamless visual effects for the traumatic flight sequence make that experience linger and reverberate throughout the film, as it does for the characters who live through it.

Venue: New York Film Festival
Opens: Friday, Nov. 2 (Paramount)
Cast: Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle, Kelly Reilly, John Goodman, Bruce Greenwood
Director: Robert Zemeckis Rated R, 138 minutes

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