Denzel Washington in 'Flight' (+trailer)

Some elements don't quite coalesce, but 'Flight' is a pretty good nail-biter.

Robert Zuckerman/Paramount Pictures/AP
Denzel Washington stars in 'Flight.'

The people who made “Flight” have done a courageous thing. With all the potential revenue to be had from in-flight movie sales, they have made a movie that is guaranteed to never be shown on an airplane.

Denzel Washington plays Capt. Whip Whit­aker, a former Navy ace who now works as an airline pilot. Despite drinking and substance abuse problems, he’s still an ace in the sky, as demonstrated by the film’s terrific opening set piece. After navigating some turbulence, he is jolted from his cockpit nap when a mechanical malfunction hurtles the plane earthward. It’s grace-under-pressure time, and Whip manages to successfully crash land and survive along with most of the crew and passengers.

But lawyers and insurance companies are bearing down, and before long, media hero Whip’s history of alcoholism begins to figure into the official investigation of the accident.

The dilemma posed here is that Whip, although technically drunk, was able to land the plane and save more than 100 lives despite a malfunction that had nothing to do with him. And yet, he clearly poses a lethal safety risk in the air. With the help of a trusted union rep (Bruce Greenwood) and a sharp lawyer (Don Cheadle), can he – should he – lie his way out of the investigation and avoid prison?

Director Robert Zemeckis, working from a screenplay by John Gatins, has been loitering in the creepy motion-capture vineyards for a long time: “The Polar Express” and “Beowulf” are not likely to rank high alongside his “Back to the Future” films or “Forrest Gump” or “Cast Away.” Mixed bag though “Flight” is, I’m glad he’s back with live-action drama.

Flight” is about the courageousness of an individual who must work his way back to a moral reckoning with himself. By casting Washington as the hero, Zemeckis is already signaling that Whip will, in the end, be redeemed. The trick, as always: making a foregone conclusion seem less than inevitable.

To accomplish this, Whip is loaded down with negatives: Besides his drinking problem, his ex-wife (Garcelle Beauvais) and son (Justin Martin) despise him, and he jeopardizes not only his own life but the lives of those who care for him. Recuperating in the hospital, he meets Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a recovering addict, and the romance that follows is sabotaged by his inability to face up to who he is.

To Washington’s credit, he doesn’t turn his performance into one long wallow. He has a tendency to keep his guard up even when he is playing characters for whom it should be down. Not here. He brings some genuine pathos to his scenes, and some hair-trigger panic as well. When he realizes that his drinking could set him up for a very long stretch in prison, he’s beyond shocked: He’s mortified (even though he pretends to be poised).

Still, for all the film’s purported somberness about substance abuse, there are (unintentionally) disconcerting interludes in which John Goodman, as Whip’s slap-happy dealer, strides onto the scene for comic relief. Why should we cheer this pushy pusher?

Zemeckis and Gatins work in a religious angle that never quite coalesces. Whip’s co-pilot (Brian Geraghty) is, for reasons not entirely clear, an evangelical hard-liner; the plane crashes in a field of pentecostal worshipers, clipping a church spire. When it’s pointed out to Whip by his lawyer that the crash can be called an “act of God,” he responds, “Whose God would do this?”

It’s window dressing for what, in every other respect, is a straightforward morality play crossed with a pretty good nail-biter. Grade: B (Rated R for drug and alcohol abuse, language, sexuality/nudity, and intense action.)

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