Film review: Return of the live-action Zemeckis

From the ads and trailers, you might think that “Flight” is some sort of legal thriller, with Denzel Washington's character being unfairly accused or even framed; and you'd be about 10% right. In fact, “Flight” is primarily a moral character drama of the subspecies “addiction.” Its greatest suspense centers on how low the hero's self-sabotage will take him.

Washington plays Whip Whitaker, an experienced airline pilot who for many years has managed to hide his alcoholism from his corporate overlords. His co-workers know the score, but no one wants to rat out a colleague who, despite his condition, has unparalleled knowledge, intelligence, agility and calmness under fire. One day, when his plane gets into trouble, he pulls insane maneuvers to land as safely as possible. The results are both horrible and miraculous. Yes, six people die, but 96 of the 102 onboard survive (albeit some of them severely injured). Should Whip be lauded as the savior of the 96? Or damned as the killer of the six?

The film leaves little doubt that the crash was primarily the result of mechanical faults and maintenance neglect. But that little doubt still nags: If he had been sober (and awake), might he have spotted the problems earlier? Or, conversely, could his drunkenness have been a plus, enabling him to stay calm in a situation where anyone else (including his green, panicky copilot) would have failed?

The scrutiny of the investigation — which could land him life in prison — requires a period of forced sobriety, but it also drives him to drink. His lawyer (Don Cheadle) and oldest friend (Bruce Greenwood) are laboring to dry him out. But when his alcoholism repeatedly intervenes, he gets furious at them and becomes uncooperative. Throughout this, he strikes up (and screws up) a relationship with a recovering junkie (Kelly Reilly), who tries to get him to AA.

“Flight” is the first live-action feature from director Robert Zemeckis in more than a decade, during which time he has concentrated on motion-capture animation (“Polar Express,” “Beowulf”). It's nice to have him back, because those recent projects haven't come close to the quality of his non-animated films — some of which (“Back to the Future,” “Back to the Future II,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and “Cast Away”) are flat-out brilliant, and others of which (“Used Cars,” “Death Becomes Her”) are darned good. Someplace in there is “Forrest Gump,” which felt brilliant until the overwhelming public embrace (for all the wrong reasons) ruined it for me.

Zemeckis is also a master of more traditional Hollywood filmmaking (“Romancing the Stone”), and “Flight” fits into that category. Much like Ben Affleck's “Argo,” it is intelligently executed and entertaining enough that we can't turn away, even when we want to. With the one exception noted below, the casting is perfect. Washington can be effortlessly charming, even when he's portraying very bad people (“Training Day,” “Safe House”). Whip is bad, but not evil. We sympathize with him but are increasingly pushed away as he behaves worse and worse, slowly destroying himself and befouling the people around him.

The sometimes faceless Greenwood is excellent here; and Cheadle, who is always excellent, is inspired casting. John Goodman also shows up a few times as Whip's loud, druggie-hipster buddy; his part is no larger than in “Argo,” and he's used for much the same purpose — to provide some sidesplitting comic relief in the midst of highly uncomic material. Reilly is less effective; it's not a matter of bad acting so much as a lack of presence. She seems to disappear off the screen when anyone with more dramatic weight — which, here, is just about everyone — shares the screen with her.

ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).

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