Time Review

High Turbulence. Denzel Washington takes flight as a daredevil with demons.

By Richard Corliss

Just an ordinary day for Whip Whitaker. He wakes up after a night of booze, drugs and sex with a gorgeous flight attendant, does a line of coke and staggers to work. Captain Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is a pilot for SouthJet Airlines, and today he'll be flying a plane from Orlando to Atlanta, if he can stay awake at the controls.

That trip, involving treacherous weather and engine failure that threaten the lives of all on board, climaxes in what may be the hairiest, scariest and most thrilling plane crash in movie history. But Flight, director Robert Zemeckis' first live-action movie since 2000's Cast Away (another film with a sensational crash landing) is determined to chart an even more turbulent course: Whip's attempt to assume--or avoid--control of his addiction. Blending the John Wayne disaster movie The High and the Mighty and Billy Wilder's classic chronicle of a bender, The Lost Weekend, the film is a drastic, fantastic interior voyage that, at its best, marks an advance for its director and a triumph for its star.

A former Navy pilot with exceptional skills and daredevil instincts, Whip is a natural high flyer, with alcohol and cocaine as his fuel. Recovering alcoholics would say Whip is in flight from himself. But he can't stay aloft forever. Though he lands the plane and saves 96 lives (losing six), he flunks the post crash sobriety test; an investigation looms.

Enter Whip's enablers, who surround him like wingmen: an old pal (Bruce Greenwood) who runs the pilots' union; his best friend, i.e., coke dealer (John Goodman); and a crafty lawyer (Don Cheadle) who hopes to kill the toxicology report. Only one voice whispers rehab, a junkie masseuse (Kelly Reilly) trying to bounce back after hitting bottom.

A great pilot but not a good one, Whip forces viewers to identify two types of heroes--the ones in movies and the ones in real life. In action films the right kind of renegade can break all the rules and still win the game. His demons give him the edge he needs to achieve impossible feats that mortal men would be too timid or sane even to consider. But that's just on the screen. Most actual airline passengers would prefer a reliable everyday pilot to a coked-up dude with reckless charisma.

The suspense is twofold: guessing whether Whip will ace the public hearing and figuring out what kind of movie Flight is--an action picture or a rehab drama? Meanwhile, Whip keeps the moviegoer in his corner with his fallibility no less than his power and charm. Washington proves a masterly player of this dichotomy. His performance is a tightrope walk between the righteous, ornery hero he usually plays and the troubled character he's boldly burrowed into.

The creator of genre-bending hits like the Back to the Future trilogy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Contact and the Oscar-winning Forrest Gump and then a pioneer in motion-capture technology with The Polar Express, Zemeckis has occasionally been criticized (by me, for example) for making films that are less than the sum of their technically innovative parts. This time he has acutely fused mainstream and indie movie cultures, tapping a sensibility that's riskier than the big-studio norm and more muscular than the Sundance films'. When a canny director and a top star discard their old strategies, that's a flight plan worth following.

Visit the Official Flight Website.