By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — A heroic pilot is celebrated for landing his failing airplane until it’s discovered that he had alcohol and cocaine in his system at the time.

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That’s the premise of the high-flying drama, Flight, in which SouthJet Airlines pilot William “Whip” Whitaker, coming off a late night of drink, drugs, and sex, must fly a plane from Orlando to Atlanta.

(3 stars out of 4)

When turbulent weather and mechanical malfunction combine to threaten the lives of the 102 souls aboard, former Navy pilot Whip’s extensive training and experience allow him to respond resourcefully and land the plane.

Consequently, he becomes a media darling – not unlike the experience of “Sully” Sullenberger after the Miracle on the Hudson.

But a post-crash toxicology report indicates that the alcohol in his blood was at a dangerous level. And that there were traces of cocaine.

Meanwhile, Whip, in flight from his own self-destructiveness and self-loathing, continues to deny – to others and to himself – an obvious truth about himself: that he is addicted to self-deception. He doesn’t see his night-before-a-flight indulgence as irresponsible or indiscreet or indicting.

And, in perhaps the film’s most fascinating irony, it’s his tragic flaw that has made possible his admirable, in-the-nick-of-time deed.

Two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington stars, as only the most magnetic movie icons can, in the complex role of Whitaker, a functioning alcoholic who routinely has other people’s lives in his hands.

The strong supporting cast includes Don Cheadle as his defense attorney, John Goodman as his drug dealer, Bruce Greenwood as his union rep, Kelly Reilly as his heroin-addicted love interest, and Melissa Leo as an NTSB interrogator.

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For director and co-producer Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, Cast Away, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the Back to the Future trilogy, Contact), working from an absorbing screenplay by John Gatins, this represents a return flight to live action after a decade-long directorial immersion in the motion-capture animation process (The Polar Express, Beowulf, A Christmas Carol).

His latest rests squarely on the shoulders of its leading man, who’s in virtually every frame.

The theme of faith and belief in God’s doings runs through the script, but in a scattershot way, insufficiently developed to resonate with much impact.

But it’s the relentlessly harrowing cockpit scenes and grippingly intense emergency landing that register indelibly, reminding us of the importance of technological innovation and visual spectacle throughout Zemeckis’ great career.

As for Washington, this meaty role is a tour de force in which he must demonstrate the character’s expertise at the same time that he reveals his chemical impairment – that is, his simultaneous desperation and determination. This star turn is anything but predictable, and he brings nuance, presence, conviction, and charisma to his character’s descent.

Many viewers will recall his Oscar-winning star turn in 2001’s Training Day. But what this performance is actually most reminiscent of is his splendidly nuanced, often-overlooked work on 1996’s Courage Under Fire.

Is he playing hero as villain? Or is it the other way around?

If only Flight could fly as high in the late going as it does in the riveting, terrifying opening sequence. Alas, there’s a perhaps inevitable but nonetheless unfortunate loss of momentum in the final reels that robs the film’s conclusion of some of it power. But not so much that we regret the flight.

So we’ll land 3 stars out of 4 for the engrossing denial drama, Flight, a character study and portrait of addiction which finds Oscar nomination-bound Denzel Washington and his compelling character, literally and figuratively, flying high.

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