'Flight' lands Denzel Washington's character in conflict

Steve Persall

Times Movie Critic

Hard to imagine that Robert Zemeckis' lack-of-character study Flight would be shown on airlines to entertain passengers. This story of an irresponsible, drug-addicted pilot steering a jet through a raging storm to a fatal crash landing would certainly have people sitting in upright positions.

Flight should have no problem thrilling moviegoers on the ground, though, with its unblinking view of chemical dependency and Denzel Washington's boldest, against-type performance since Training Day. This is a tightly wound production, Zemeckis' first live-action effort since Cast Away, and after a decade of admirably failing to make motion-capture animation the next big thing, one of his finest.

Washington plays Capt. "Whip" Whitaker, a pilot for a regional airline who's introduced while chasing a hangover with warm beer and cocaine, with a naked flight attendant collecting her clothes. Their flight from Orlando to Atlanta leaves in about an hour, and Whip is in no shape to command.

Soon after takeoff, the storm hits, a mechanical failure emerges, and instinctively Whip guides the jet with extreme maneuvers to a landing with only a handful of fatalities. It's a breathtaking sequence filmed by Zemeckis with brain-rattling intensity, suitable for a bang-up finish to any action movie with less on its mind.

Whip is hailed as a hero in the media but he knows blood tests will reveal his intoxication. His union chief (Bruce Greenwood) is bound by loyalty and contract to support Whip, hiring a slick attorney (Don Cheadle) to quash the blood tests. Nobody else could have done what Whip did to save most of his passengers and crew. Yet the circumstances raise a troubling question: Can someone be forgiven for illegal, unsavory actions simply because something heroic results?

The casting of Washington alone makes this a difficult question to answer. He's an actor with immediate audience rapport, a quality challenged from the film's opening frames by Whip's irresponsible actions. The more Washington teaches us about his character — Whip's easy dishonesty, misplaced sense of entitlement and refusal to be sober — the more we want him locked away. Then again, this is Denzel Washington, so do we?

Screenwriter John Gatins expands the conflict to the parallel story of Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a single mother and heroin addict Whip meets in a hospital after the crash. Their relationship is Days of Wine and Roses stuff, a dramatic ballet of co-dependency and the inevitability of one person wising up before the other. Reilly is marvelous as Nicole, an angel of mercy with broken wings offering a way out for someone not seeking it.

There are no easy solutions posed by Flight, as Zemeckis piles up reasons why Whip isn't worth saving. For his part, Washington is merciless in making Whip unappealing, and the film's most effective dramatic moments occur when he's letting down people who believe in him, including the audience. Flight winds up a bit pat and flat, in an inquiry hearing where little happens as it would in real life. But for two hours Flight is exhilarating drama, and a triumphant return to glory for both Zemeckis and Washington.

Steve Persall can be reached at persall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365.

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Flight

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Cast: Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, Don Cheadle, John Goodman, Bruce Greenwood, Nadine Velazquez, Melissa Leo, Tamara Tunie, Brian Geraghty

Screenplay: John Gatins

Rating: R; pervasive drug and alcohol abuse, profanity, frontal nudity, an intense action sequence

Running time: 139 min.

Grade: A-

'Flight' lands Denzel Washington's character in conflict 10/31/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 31, 2012 5:30am]

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