Washington hits new heights in 'Flight'

Reviewer's Rating: ★★★1/2

Throughout Hollywood history, actors who play alcoholics, drug addicts, the mentally ill and the mentally disabled tend to be nominated for awards. Such troubled, award-bait characters make juicy roles.

Denzel Washington’s performance as an alcoholic pilot in Flight is a new entry in the category. His Whip Whitaker is a great pilot with years of experience. In the spectacular crisis-in-the-air sequence that arrives early in the film, Whip’s cockpit skills save most of the people aboard a plane that in all likelihood should be doomed.

But there’s a catch. Whip’s brilliant maneuvers were executed under the influence.

Advertising for Flight suggests it’s more thriller than drama. Despite the movie’s opening action-sequence hook, Flight is, most of all, a serious, occasionally funny drama. It tackles the trials of addiction with gripping honesty.

Washington, already the winner of two Academy Awards, does more exceptional work in Flight. Time will tell if he gets another nomination for the role, but he certainly deserves praise.

Whip, a career pilot, likely has been an alcoholic his entire adult life. He’s no stranger to cocaine, marijuana and other substances as well. And the divorced Whip isn’t adverse to having an affair with a codependent co-worker.

Washington takes his role as a pilot on the edge by the horns. He wrestles with the addiction beast inside of Whip, winning a few battles, losing most of the others.

The actor flies high when Whip’s feeling good. He sinks to pathetic lows when the highs wear off, tumbling down with the chaotic punches his character throws his way. Leave it to Washington, too, to make Whip both a charming man and intolerable drunk.

Robert Zemeckis, the director of such diverse films as Cast Away, Back to the Future, The Polar Express and Forrest Gump, keeps his storytelling lean and efficient. With such a good tale to tell, the director stays out of its way and the work of his A-level cast.

The movie’s deep supporting cast includes John Goodman, Don Cheadle and, another Oscar-winner, Melissa Leo.

Goodman appears in only two scenes, but the burly actor’s showcase part as Harling Mays, Whip’s there-when-he-needs-him drug supplier, is quintessential Goodman.

In this often dark story about Whip’s substance-abuse, Goodman’s Harling lights up scenes that should be tragic, turning them into drug-fueled comic relief. Most of all, Goodman revels in his larger-than-life character’s expertise and pride in his work.

Cheadle has engaging scenes, too, as the Chicago lawyer hired by the pilots’ union to project Whip from potential criminal negligence charges and, generally speaking, the image of unionized pilots everywhere. Cheadle plays it straight as the all-business attorney, a tactic that lets his straight-man reaction to Whip’s off-the-rails behavior become more comic relief.

Leo has the non-flashy, more difficult role of a National Transportation Safety Board investigator. She’s also on the screen too briefly to make much impact. Kelly Reilly, on the other hand, has the space to give a far more nuanced performance as Nicole, a fallen Southern belle whose life intersects with Whip’s a critical time in both of the characters’ lives.

Like principal characters Whip and Nicole, Flight makes tough decisions about the way life goes. Rather than pander to audiences with a phony, stand-up-and-cheer finale, the movie picks a darker but more honest path that opens the door for hard-won delayed gratification.