The crash at the beginning of "Flight" -- the most realistic plane disaster ever put to film -- is the kind of on-screen moment that will stick with viewers long after the movie is over. But it also doesn't take long to realize that the more spectacular crash-and-burn moments are the ones Denzel Washington's character experiences after the big fall.
Washington turns in an Oscar-worthy performance as Whip Whitaker, a grizzled veteran pilot who uses a mixture of liquor and drugs to keep him going. Despite his rabid substance abuse, Whitaker's natural instincts as a pilot allow him to crash land a plane -- after flying for a time upside down -- in such a way to save the majority of souls on board.
The real nose dive for him starts with the investigation that follows. Whitaker becomes the focus of an FAA inquiry and the media. He argues that while he had been drinking and using cocaine before the disaster, he was one of the few pilots who could have pulled off this bit of miracle flying. He's fighting serious legal problems armed only with a shield of denial.
Director Robert Zemeckis uses a similar format to the one that made "Cast Away" such a monumental hit. Both films start with big events, but then rely heavily on the star's acting abilities to make the rest of the movie equally as memorable.
It's a big gamble because Whitaker is painfully flawed but is also worthy of salvation. Washington is one of a handful of actors capable of playing such a complicated role. He has a way, with a simple shift of his eyes or change of tone in his voice, to make a role seem emotionally real. It would have been easy for this character to come across as a full villain or overly heroic, but in the capable hands of Washington the character feels very human -- flaws and all.
Most of the supporting cast is equally as impressive, especially the always dependable Don Cheadle as Whitaker's lawyer. There are some bumps along the way, including John Goodman as Whitaker's best friend and drug dealer. Goodman's over-the-top performance is a distraction in this very down-to-earth story.
"Flight" takes off on the wings of a spectacular stunt, but it glides along to a perfect touch down on the strength of another unforgettable performance by Washington.
"Flight," rated R for language, drug use, nudity, crash scene. Stars Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle, John Goodman, Melissa Leo. Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Running time: 138 minutes. Grade: B+
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, firstname.lastname@example.org or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.