The destructive force that is alcoholism has formed the centerpiece of many a Hollywood drama, from The Lost Weekend to The Country Girl to Leaving Las Vegas. While the story details change, they all share characteristics familiar to anyone living in proximity to an alcoholic: The lies, the broken bonds of trust, the mental - and sometimes physical - abuse. The downward spiral. The breaking point.
In director Robert Zemeckis' Flight, Denzel Washington is veteran airline pilot Whip Whitaker, whose booze and cocaine addictions have already cost him his family. Now, his high-profile job is on the line, because he's let his personal and professional lives get too close once too often. He enters the cockpit of an Orlando-to-Atlanta flight just drunk enough to be impaired, but not enough to send up any warning signals to the people flying with him.
The devastating crash happens within the first 15 minutes of Flight; it's staged for maximum scare, and anyone who's already a little nervous about flying might want to take a pass on this movie, or risk a lifelong commitment to Amtrak. It's that gut-wrenching.
No spoilers here; Captain Whitaker is among the survivors, and as the crash is investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board, exactly what happened in those tense final moments is explored again and again.
Washington, who could play this kind of mixed-up badass in his sleep by now, gives the beleaguered pilot a deep sense of vulnerability masked by bravado and denial. An understated Don Cheadle plays Whitaker's lawyer, and Bruce Greenwood is the only one from the pilots' union who doesn't seem to want him hung out to dry.
But Whitaker's an alcoholic. He lets them both down.
John Goodman's appearances as the pilot's drug dealer pal are but comic relief in an otherwise deadly serious film.
British actress Kelly Riley appears as a junkie who becomes Whitaker's unlikely lifeline as he comes under increasingly intense scrutiny; it's a variation of the "hooker with a heart of gold," and as their scenes together unfold, we're meant to wonder if these two abusers are meant to go down in flames together.
The brilliant Zemeckis, who hasn't had a big hit since Cast Away a dozen years ago, does serviceable work - it's hard to make a bad film with the dogged, durable Washington in the lead - but Flight isn't going to be the one to bring him back to his Back to the Future and Forrest Gump heyday.
In fact, the Zemeckis film it reminded me of most was 1997's Contact, which mesmerized me as I watched it on the screen. Two minutes outside the theater, however, I had forgotten most of it.
Flight opens Friday, Nov. 2.