Denzel Washington soars to career highs in Robert Zemeckis’s emotionally wrought character study of an airplane pilot wrestling with alcohol dependency.
Underpinned by John Gatins’s intelligent script, Flight is a provocative drama that refuses to cast judgment on the central character as he repeats past mistakes and attempts to dodge the repercussions of his reckless actions.
Instead, Zemeckis’s film accompanies the pilot on a turbulent journey of self-discovery as a major mechanical failure in the air puts his boozy lifestyle under the microscope of public scrutiny.
Captain William ‘Whip’ Whitaker (Washington) wakes in a plush hotel room festooned with discarded bottles and the naked body of last night’s conquest, flight attendant Katerina Marquez (Nadine Velazquez).
Swigs of beer set Whip up for the day and he strides purposefully into the cockpit of his SouthJet flight to Atlanta while holding a bottle of orange juice spiked with vodka.
Katerina is on board, serving passengers alongside experienced colleague Margaret Thomason (Tamara Tunie).
A routine flight becomes a nightmare when the airplane suddenly loses altitude and hurtles toward the ground at terrifying speed.
Whip is forced to perform a daredevil manoeuvre to halt the rapid descent before crash-landing in a field.
A subsequent investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, led by Ellen Block (Melissa Leo), threatens to expose Whip’s alcoholism.
Union rep Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood) and attorney Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle) promise to help Whip survive the fallout on the proviso that he changes his self-destructive ways.
Whip agrees to exorcise his demons, supported by a recovering heroine addict called Nicole (Kelly Reilly).
Romance blossoms but, while Nicole continues to get her life back in order, Whip struggles to resist his desires, turning to drug dealer Harling Mays (John Goodman) to take the edge off his anxiety.
Flight boasts a jaw-dropping centrepiece crash sequence that spins an entire airplane through 360 degrees.
Zemeckis orchestrates these intense scenes with brio but he is equally interested in quieter moments when Whip wrestles with his guilt and attempts to resist the temptations of a hotel mini bar.
Washington is riveting as a man in authority who can barely function without liquor.
He lays bare Whip’s insecurities and doesn’t resort once to currying our sympathy.
Reilly impresses in a pivotal supporting role and Goodman injects humour as the supplier who knows the perfect cocktail of narcotics to counteract a hangover.
Climactic scenes are gripping and we buckle up for a bumpy ride as Whip prepares to deliver sworn testimony at the public hearing, potentially glossing over the facts to restore a sheen to his stained reputation.
STAR RATING: ****