Denzel Washington is that rare movie star who brings character-actor strengths into nearly every leading-man role. Many an average movie has become worthy because of Denzel’s gravity. Sadly, though, that’s the rule rather than the exception: Washington’s very good films are few and far between.
Flight is one of Washington’s very good films, even if it takes about 20 minutes too long to make its point. The surface elements are pure movie-star: Denzel plays Whip Whitaker, a pilot who saves about 100 passengers from certain death. He’s gone the Full Sullenberger. But beneath the surface is where Flight becomes something special: While he did save the day, Whip’s toxicology tests suggest the Full Keith Richards.
The trick for Washington is to play everything convincingly, and he does, showing a lot more rough edges all at once than usual. There’s a touching subplot between Whip and a heroin addict (Kelly Reilly) he meets in the hospital following the crash, and their razor-thin sobrieties are constantly tested. There’s the investigation into the crash and Whip’s rather craven effort to downplay his .24 blood test while flying. And there’s the confidence of a man willing to do a line of blow, walk onto a plane and know how to save the day. Washington never drops the ball.
Flight is directed by Robert Zemeckis, and it’s not really the type of thing he does best, although he came to this project fully invested in exploring the character of Whip Whitaker through the situations he comes up against. That leads to some very long scenes, because you can’t figure out Whip Whitaker without his alcoholism.
A bit of a slow-grinder, it’s still more than worth it just to watch Denzel go for broke.