Americans and moviegoers are accustomed to characters who neatly fit into one slot or the other, never both. But in "Flight," Denzel Washington presents a complicated character who saves lives even as he appears to be destroying his own with alcohol.
He's a veteran airline pilot, Capt. Whip Whitaker, and if the name is reminiscent of real-life Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, that may be intentional.
Both guide crippled planes to crash or splash landings although Whip's passenger jet goes into an uncontrolled dive -- plummeting toward the ground in a fast and furious way -- when he must improvise or literally die trying.
Starring: Denzel Washington, Bruce Greenwood, Don Cheadle, Kelly Reilly.
Rating: R for drug and alcohol abuse, language, sexuality/nudity and an intense action sequence.
Whip cuts a fine figure in a pilot's uniform and aviator shades but he's not a poster child for clean living. In the movie's opening scenes, he takes a swallow from one of the almost empty beer bottles on his hotel nightstand, shares a puff of his bedmate's joint and then snorts some cocaine to try to clear his head.
Once aboard the plane bound from Orlando to Atlanta, he downs some black coffee, aspirins and, surreptitiously, orange juice with a few of those tiny bottles of vodka mixed in.
When, without warning, the plane loses its hydraulics, pitch and vertical control and enters an uncontrolled descent, Whip must use every tool at his disposal -- and some found in no manuals -- to try to save the 102 souls on board.
He wakes up an injured hero in the hospital but, as the days progress, his image starts to flip just like that plane. Is he a superman, the only person who could have landed that doomed jet, or will the airline and NTSB pin the blame on him and deem Whip unfit to fly -- or worse?
He finds himself surrounded by friends old and new, including his union rep (Bruce Greenwood), a longtime pal (John Goodman, stealing scenes again) whose theme music is "Sympathy for the Devil," a defense attorney (Don Cheadle) and a recovering addict (Kelly Reilly) trying to start anew.
Two actors with Pittsburgh connections also turn up: Tamara Tunie, a Steel Valley High School and Carnegie Mellon University graduate, plays flight attendant Margaret Thomason, and Brian Geraghty, who lived in Pittsburgh from roughly age 3 to 7 and attended North Allegheny's Espe Elementary School, is Whip's young co-pilot.
Robert Zemeckis, an Oscar winner for "Forrest Gump," directs "Flight," written by John Gatins and starring an actor who fits the same description applied to Whip: rock star. Whip is likely more sympathetic because he's played by Mr. Washington, an actor who has banked 25 years-plus of good will with film, TV and theater audiences.
Whip is a complex character who has been in flight from his problems for years and we see the toll it took on his family life. He likely isn't the only alcoholic to think if he tosses out all the booze in the house, he will stop drinking.
"Flight" is the rare movie that brings God into the equation although not in a heavy-handed, unnatural way; much of the story takes place in the Bible Belt, after all. Any time people emerge as survivors rather than victims, it is natural to talk about a miracle, as with that icy Hudson River landing.
The harrowing, heart-thumping flight of the movie's fictional SouthJet 227 could keep fear of flying classes in business for years. But the movie's complex, compelling themes about flawed heroes, denial, redemption, truth-telling and forgiveness make it soar.