*** (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Robert Zemeckis
STARS Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle
Some actors, like Harrison Ford, excel at playing straightforward heroes. Others, such as Brad Pitt, soar when tackling protagonists with dark shadings. And then there's Denzel Washington, who's equally adept at portraying both.
FLYING UNDER THE INFLUENCE: Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) tries to take control in Flight. (Photo: Paramount)
In Flight, director Robert Zemeckis' first film in 12 years that isn't (thank God) one of those motion-capture endeavors (see his awful A Christmas Carol adaptation starring Jim Carrey), Washington's character of "Whip" Whitaker is seen in the early going snorting a line of coke and drinking booze as if it were Gatorade. Hey, to each his own ... except for the minor fact that Whitaker is a commercial pilot, and on this particular morning he's set to commandeer a plane from Orlando to Atlanta. But Whitaker is nothing if not functional while under the influence, and when disaster strikes (in a brilliantly staged sequence), he's able to save most (but not all) of the 100-plus people on board. Yet while the media initially pegs him as a hero a la Capt. Sully Sullenberger, there's the troubling behind-the-scenes matter of a revealing toxicology report.
Written by John Gatins, Flight depends almost entirely on Washington's central performance, since the movie emerges as less a drama about an airplane crash and more a character study about a man who won't admit his problems to anyone, including himself. The subplot involving Whitaker's relationship with a fellow substance abuser (Kelly Reilly) starts out well but never comes to a boil, and the scenes opposite his ex-wife (Garcelle Beauvais) and teenage son (Justin Martin) are too brief to make the necessary impact. But when Gatins stays focused on Whitaker's legal quandary, the film remains compelling, with nice turns by Don Cheadle and Bruce Greenwood as two of the only people in the pilot's corner. And then there's John Goodman as Harling Mays, a boisterous sort (he travels with his own personal theme song: The Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil") who's not only Whitaker's best friend but also his provider and enabler. The moral ramifications of such a character is completely brushed aside in order to allow Goodman to provide the requisite comic relief (which he does).
Still, while Gatins pulls a punch with this particular characterization, he comes out swinging for the rest of the picture. So does Washington, once again performing at a dizzying altitude.