Pilot of his own Destruction

Denzel Washington stars as a hero with a dark secret in this fantastic film

Flight is exciting—terrific, really—because in addition to the sophisticated storytelling techniques by which it keeps us hooked, it doesn’t tell us what to think or how to judge the reckless, charismatic protagonist played by Denzel Washington.

Robert Zemeckis, the filmmaker, has a lot in common with Whip Whitaker, the veteran commercial airline pilot Washington plays with exquisite authority (authority under duress, which is more interesting than cardboard heroics). Like the protagonist, Zemeckis is a showoff, brash and highly skilled. He’s a director fascinated by what the medium’s digital-effects possibilities allow him to depict onscreen.

Building on a career begun with Back to the Future, Zemeckis more recently focused his energies on a trio of slightly eerie movies reliant on motion-capture animation, halfway between cartoony and realistic: The Polar Express, Beowulf and Jim Carrey’s A Christmas Carol.

It’s gratifying to find Zemeckis leaving behind the uncanny valley and showing what he can do with a script that scrambles, brilliantly, the audience’s feelings toward a brave and valiant savior with a few things to hide.

The trailers for Flight suggest The High and the Mighty crossed with all four Airport disaster movies. But it’s not that sort of film. Here, thanks largely to Washington’s intricate portrait, the crises have more to do with morals and ethics than with mechanical failure and uncontrolled nose dives at 21,000 feet.

It begins as an ordinary day for Whitaker. He’s in Orlando, a few hours away from a routine morning Flight back to Atlanta. He and his Flight-attendant lover (Nadine Velazquez) have been drinking and snorting cocaine. By phone Whitaker speaks briefly to his ex-wife, arguing about finances, their son and other sore points (“You wanted him to go to private school, not me”). The weather isn’t good. In the cockpit, Whitaker gets through some above-average turbulence well enough. Then Zemeckis puts the audience through just enough hell to give Flight an opening thrill, but not a cheap or needlessly extravagant one.

After the crash landing, only a handful of the plane’s passenger and crew end up dead and Whitaker becomes a hero. But he knows he was legally drunk when it all happened, to say nothing of the cocaine. He learns that other people know this too, though the news has yet to go public. Whitaker’s old friend and union rep (Bruce Greenwood) is around for comfort and for counsel, as is a smooth, cagey lawyer (Don Cheadle, excellent). Kelly Reilly, the supple English actress, is a vulnerable fellow addict Whitaker meets early on in the hospital. Their relationship develops in unexpected ways, but almost everything that works in Flight is unpredictable. (The last 15 minutes, less so, and a touch soft, but I felt the movie earned the ending it chose.)

Zemeckis lets some leisurely dialogue sequences establish more than one mood, more than one facet of Whitaker’s dilemma. John Goodman tears up two juicy scenes as Whitaker’s dealer and devil/angel confidant. As Whitaker and his increasingly concerned allies face an imminent National Transportation Safety Board hearing regarding the crash, Flight dares you to root for the man in the middle, even as you root for his reckoning.

Washington, whose face in Flight becomes a series of bargains and lies, interacts wonderfully with his fellow actors. So few directors care about that sort of thing anymore; so few care about choreographing the interaction between the camera and the actors without resorting to cutting. Flight is Washington’s show, and he’s marvelous in it. But Zemeckis and his team put everything in place so that Washington could run with it, with unnervingly good results.

Flight (R) ★★★★☆