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Review: Doleful Washington keeps 'Flight' grounded

By Tom Charity, Special to CNN
updated 5:17 PM EDT, Fri November 2, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "Flight" stars Denzel Washington as a flawed airline pilot
  • Critic praises the spectacular plane crash in film
  • There's also a love story between Washington and another troubled character

Editor's note: This review may contain spoilers.

(CNN) -- Perhaps you have done something like this at some stage in your life: you wake up late for work, hung-over, maybe still a little drunk. You throw on some clothes and report for duty.

Maybe you even take a little pride in having gotten your act together so fast? Hopefully you didn't snort cocaine to clear your head, and hopefully you weren't piloting a commercial airliner either.

This is how the morning goes for Captain Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington), who copes with an angry wake-up call from his ex-wife and then has to face down a storm on takeoff. As the saying goes, it's all down hill from here.

An hour into the flight, the plane goes into a tailspin, and Whip has to use his expertise to execute a death-defying emergency landing. He's a national hero -- until the blood test results come in.

With its spectacular plane crash -- I would rate it fractionally behind the air disasters director Robert Zemeckis staged in "Cast Away" and Joe Carnahan in "The Grey," but still more than gut-wrenching enough to make you think about taking the train, next time -- "Flight" immediately raises the stakes on your typical addiction drama. But that's essentially what it is -- with a courtroom finish for extra lift.

See, that title refers not just to one doomed trip, but also to Whip's pattern of evasion. In the aftermath, he steers as far as possible from public scrutiny, avoids even his own defense team, and like all addicts reserves his biggest lies for himself.

The first thing he does when he wakes up in hospital is reach out to his supplier for a little extra-medicinal support (he's played by John Goodman with much the same gusto he brings to "Argo"), but Whip refuses his offer of booze and goes on the wagon for a spell.

That resolve crumbles when he realizes the kind of trouble he's in. When he picks up a fellow addict (Kelly Reilly) and offers her shelter in the out-of-the-way farm where he grew up, it's a toss-up whether he's trying to help or looking for a like-minded screw-up and enabler.

The relationship is well-acted without ever quite dispelling the whiff of the screenwriting manual. And that goes for the movie as a whole, which is always expert and sometimes extremely tense, but maybe a bit too on the nose. This is a good movie, but not a great one.

Still, Denzel Washington is very fine, packing some extra baggage around the midriff here, his customary swagger speckled with resentment and soulful self-doubt. Whip's a terrific pilot and a deeply flawed human being -- an atheist who will pray with a surviving crew-member if that's what it takes to secure a friendly witness for his hearing.

It's not too often we find such questionable characters at the heart of big budget movies like this, and there's a lived-through-it quality to the movie's observations on alcoholism that helps "Flight" transcend its occasional cliches and even its cop-out sentimental ending.

Zemeckis squeezes maximum suspense out of Whip's wobbly sobriety -- the mini-bar has never looked so sinister -- but even he has trouble disguising the hollow dilemma propping up John Gatins' story: Is it okay for a pilot to be drunk in charge of an aircraft? I think we all know the answer to that one.

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