Film review: Flight is Hollywood on autopilot with planes, cocaine and Denzel Washington

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Three sentences you never want to hear in a plane: "We are in a dive. We have lost vertical control. We are declaring an emergency." And that's before the pilot tries to arrest the plunge by rolling the plane upside down. Yes, that's correct; a commercial airliner carrying "102 souls" goes topsy-turvy in mid-air, and we're right inside the cabin with the passengers as it does so.

Orson Welles famously said there are only two emotions experienced on a plane – boredom and terror. In this early sequence, Flight does the latter with knobs on. Its director, Robert Zemeckis, has some form here: you may recall Tom Hanks tossed around the promiscuous chaos of a plane going down in Cast Away 12 years ago. But Flight tops it for you-are-there-and-screaming scariness. Be assured, it will not feature in your in-flight entertainment programme, ever.

The other clever thing this key sequence does is to reveal character. After all, not every pilot could have rescued a plane as it nose-dived towards earth. Maybe not any pilot. But then Captain "Whip" Whitaker is a one-off, and if we needed further proof, he's played by Denzel Washington. When hell was breaking loose inside that plane you notice that Whip hardly raised his voice as he struggled to regain control. Ordinary mortals would have raved. This man showed some cool.

But we know something else about Whip, established in the very first scene of his waking up in the fuddled gloom of last night's excesses, his naked partner getting out of bed to prepare him a sobering snort of cocaine. An hour later he's ready to board his plane, and (whoops) he stumbles on the bottom step. You've perhaps read stories about airline pilots having a drink prior to take-off, but Whip, he's properly loaded, and once onboard he fortifies himself with a couple more vodkas. Come fly with me!

Cut to a hospital bed and Whip watching TV news reports of his startling rescue job. "Way you landed that plane was nothing short of a miracle," he's told, though not all of those 102 souls made it out alive. Whip saved the plane, but was he also partly to blame? Airline union rep Charlie (Bruce Greenwood) is on hand to help him ahead of the investigation by the National Transportation and Safety Board.

The blood-alcohol count isn't looking good: if it gets out Whip was drunk, he could be facing a manslaughter charge and prison time. That's why the airline has got a smart lawyer (Don Cheadle) who says he can bury the toxicology report. There is something in Washington's gaze, though, that tells us just how deep his character's troubles go. What price escape, if a man cannot save his own soul?

Flight seems poised to examine this interesting tension, between what he knows about himself and what he thinks he can get away with. Whip may be a maestro in the air, but he's an absolute wreck on the ground. We know from page one of the script he has an ex-wife he yells at down the phone and a teenage son who doesn't want to see him. He drinks, he does drugs, and – possibly the ultimate vote-loser for American audiences – he smokes. The way the screenwriter John Gatins has set him up, as hero and anxious self-deceiver, makes it a gift to an actor. And who wouldn't rejoice at the prospect of Washington, a national treasure, stepping into the breach?

Apart from me, that is. Oh, of course Denzel's a top pro, a safe bet; just his smile can give audiences a lift. But I do wonder if his presence is entirely a blessing to a movie. Even when he takes roles that reach into the dark, such as American Gangster, Man on Fire, or last year's Safe House, Washington invariably slants the role upwards to redemption. The one time he played an unregenerate villain, as the corrupt cop in Training Day, he won an Oscar, and it seemed to spook him because he's been playing flawed saints ever since.

Look at how this film changes. Whip reaches a low point when prior to his hearing he attempts to suborn the chief flight attendant, with appalling tastelessness, at the funeral of a colleague. Appalling – but interesting. Yet instead of framing it as a moral investigation, Flight opts for a predictable and formulaic study in addiction, the upshot of which is to smudge Whip's self-deception. Alcoholism has brought him to this, says the movie, not his hubris, or his selfishness, or any other failing of character.

And it softens him further by pairing him off with a recovering heroin addict, Nicole (Kelly Reilly), who naturally feels his pain. She even gets him as far as an AA meeting, usually the moment you start to hear a drama's death rattle. Reilly, in her first big US picture, is engagingly vulnerable and sweet, even if it's just a variation on the junkie angel. John Goodman as Whip's drug dealer is a fleshy nightmare straight from the pages of Hunter S Thompson, and gives the movie a boost (appropriately) in its endgame. But Flight goes down, anyway.

Washington has built his career on projecting authority in situations of extreme stress and peril. He's been the guy you'd want in charge of your boat (Crimson Tide), your train (Unstoppable), your plane, when crisis looms. But this heroic aptitude, and his own need to be loved, have rendered the pictures he stars in too safe, too same-old-thing-again.

I won't tell you what happens in the last 20 minutes of Flight, but if you know Denzel, you know what's coming. Zemeckis has put together a marvel of armrest-gripping panic in the opening half-hour, and all praise to him for it. But from that high point the film cruises and, despite small pockets of turbulence on the way, makes a secure landing in Recovery, USA. Denzel's got his wings back, and he's ascending once more.

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