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The Independent Critic

Denzel Washington, John Goodman, Don Cheadle, Melissa Leo, Kelly Reilly
Robert Zemeckis
John Gatins
Rated R
138 Mins.
Paramount Pictures
four EPK-grade featurettes and one post-screening question & answer session.

 "Flight" Predictably Suspenseful but Lifted by a Soaring Washington 
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I seldom find myself in agreement with New York Observer film critic Rex Reed, but when Reed states "I simply don't believe that people are basically good at heart - and I don't buy into sudden salvation," he gets to the heart of a film that soars in its opening sequences but otherwise stumbles out of the gate despite a soaring and award-worthy performance from the seemingly always dependable Denzel Washington.

Washington is one of those actors who simply elevates every project he's in - Heck, he even managed to make Mila Kunis look like an actress in Book of Eli. Flight is the kind of film that Denzel Washington's legion of fans love, a sometimes brutal and sometimes brutally funny mixture of the actor's good guy charm  with the moral complexities of a character whose shadow has perhaps begun to overwhelm any semblance of that heroic figure who is left.

Washington plays pilot Whip Whitaker, a man whose heroic stoicism masks an increasingly fractured psyche' and one hell of a substance abuse problem. If you already fancy yourself afraid of flying, Flight isn't likely to do too much to soothe your fears. Whip is the kind of pilot you fear the most - The opening says it all with an obviously still under the influence Whip waking up in a hotel room with a sexy and equally coked up flight attendant. A few minutes later, Whip is looking more dashing than ever as he gets loaded and loads up for the 46-minute flight to his home base of Atlanta.

If Whip sounds like a nightmare waiting to happen, he is. He also happens to be one heck of a fine pilot, and exactly the man you want to be flying the plane when a major mechanical failure happens. So, when that mechanical failure happens halfway home to Atlanta, Whip does the impossible and successfully crash lands the doomed plane and manages to save 96 out of the plane's 102 souls.

He's a hero - at least until the toxicology report comes in.

As his long time buddy and pilots union representative Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood) states in Whip's hospital room, "death demands the assigning of responsibility." While Whip may not have been responsible for the mechanical failure that led to his flight's crash, his .24 Blood Alcohol Content says otherwise.

Suddenly, everyone from the pilots union to the National Transportation Safety Board can't decide whether or not to build up Whip as a hero or hang him out to dry. The biggest problem with Flight is that once it gets landed, the film really does start to crash land despite a bravura performance by Washington that turns on the addictive charm by not allowing the audience to get close to Whip but still managing to elicit sympathy anyway.

That's the sign of a commendable performance by Washington, who makes us care about a man who is in denial about his addiction and who is at least partially responsible for loss of six life. Oh sure, he rescued 96 lives with what could best be described as a daredevil maneuver that works despite Whip's being saddled with a sniveling semblance of a co-pilot (Brian Geraghty) who isn't much help. If anything, Flight is a more frightening indictment of the airline industry than it is of Whip Whitaker, an obviously deeply troubled man whose troubles are fueled by those who either want to help him, enable him or simply can't seem to get past their admiration for him.

Unfortunately, as quickly as Flight soars it also begins its uncontrolled descent thanks to a script by John Gatins that turns the film into an afterschool special on addiction. Admittedly, it's a good afterschool special on addiction but it's still an afterschool special on addiction. While it's admirable that Washington avoids unnecessary histrionics and faux dramatic heights, Flight becomes content to tell a merely functional tale about a man who may or may not eventually be forced to confront his addictions rather than having the courage to go into a far more satisfying story about the nature of heroism and the insatiable American need for media-fueled fairy tales.

Along the way, Washington is still good. In fact, Washington is so good that he nearly overwhelms the film with a performance that soars far higher than the film itself. Washington's troubled soul is surrounded by his co-dependent friend (Greenwood), the aforementioned sniveling co-pilot whose fundamental Christianity commands that he forgive despite having become a paraplegic (Brian Geraghty), a pilots union lawyer whose entire job it is to shift blame towards an "act of God" (Don Cheadle) and, eventually, a love interest (Kelly Reilly) who is herself struggling with addiction issues.

Oh, and did I mention John Goodman appearing as the film's comic relief? Goodman's turn as Whip's dealer is played for laughs and even a few semi-unexpected heroics. The fact that Goodman is so darn good here is more than a touch disturbing.

However, none of the performances come close to measuring up to heights of Washington's performance. While he is the star of the film, it's the wide chasm between Washington's performance and that of everyone else that makes Flight feel like an even more topsy-turvey film than is its ill-fated flight.

Denzel Washington fans certainly can't go wrong by checking out Flight, however, and I suspect that a good portion of the general movie-going public will find much to love about this suspenseful, dramatic and occasionally suspenseful film. Much as the character he portrays, Denzel Washington once again takes a film destined for mediocrity and turns it into a thing of near beauty with only a few plot points left in tatters.

Cinematic heroics? Indeed. But, then again, that's just another day on the job for Denzel Washington.

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic