'Flight' Review: Washington Crash Lands in Oscar Territory

Denzel Washington has spent too much of his 50s classing up generic thrillers like "Safe House," "Deja Vu" and "The Taking of Pelham 123."

"Flight" reminds us why we call him so easily by his first name and, more importantly, take his ability to lift mediocre material for granted.

The new film, which also marks the return of director Robert Zemeckis to stories of consequence, should deposit Washington back into Oscar's good graces.

It's precisely where he belongs.

Washington plays "Whip" Whitaker, a veteran airline pilot whose poise helps him land a severely damaged plane in the film's most harrowing sequence.

He's a hero ... at least until investigators discover Whip had alcohol in his system during the flight. Now, Whip must battle both a mounting body of evidence saying he was unfit to fly along with his spiraling alcohol dependency.

"Flight" is much more than yet another damaged soul seeking redemption yarn. The movie offers illuminating dialogue that's alternately profound and comic, along with grand supporting turns that make Whip's plight all the more arresting.

John Goodman has only a few precious scenes, but he's the embodiment of good time drug abuse, the guy who looks too comfortable in his own skin to ever stumble into rehab.

Don Cheadle burns with corked fury as the lawyer assigned to keep Whip out of jail. It's a tough assignment, both in and out of character, but Cheadle straddles the line between professional excellence and moral indignation.

It's precisely the walk "Flight" forces us to make.

Whip deserves justice, but should a man whose skill saved a hundred "souls," as the film routinely calls them, spend so much as a night in jail? And Washington finds so many nuances in Whip's predicament it keeps swirling our own moral compasses. He's proud and boastful, weak and crumbling, and his inner strength keeps getting lapped by his appetite for destruction, with apologies to a certain screech rocker.

You need an actor of Washington's weight to make "Flight" happen. He forces us to root for a drunk, to accept how his union swallows hard at his condition in order to save face and to accept the kind of redemption a film like "Flight" can give.

We rarely see addiction given such a serious examination as "Flight" provides, but it's even better at letting Washington bask in his best screen role in recent memory.

Follow Christian Toto on Twitter @TotoMovies


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