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Review: Flight

10/31/2012 09:02 am ET | Updated Dec 31, 2012

The commercials for Flight are a dazzling bit of bait-and-switch. If you've seen them, then your impression of the film is probably something along the lines of: A pilot saves an airliner from a seemingly certain crash, then must fight for his reputation against dark forces that want to scapegoat him for a mechanical failure.

Wrong.

Rather, Robert Zemeckis' Flight is a character study disguised as a thriller. The near-crash is just the beginning of the story -- and the story is not what you think. Instead of some dark conspiracy tale, it's an examination of one man's struggle with his own demons, brought into stark relief by his situation.

His name is Whip Whitaker and, as played by Denzel Washington (in what should be another Oscar-nominated performance), he's a bit of a mess. We first see him waking up next to a woman in a hotel room to the sound of a ringing phone. As his companion dresses in the background, we see him arguing on the phone with what is obviously his ex-wife, even as he downs the dregs of last night's beer, takes a hit off the stub of a joint the woman offers him, then hangs up the phone and tops it all off with a line of cocaine. Breakfast of champions, indeed.

And then he puts on his pilot's uniform and reports to work flying a plane-load of people from Orlando to Atlanta. Yikes.

His copilot (Brian Geraghty) notices that he seems unnaturally cheery but Whip has that bravura confidence of the long-time drinker who knows how to brazen his way through: "Don't tell me how to hide my drinking -- I've been doing it for years," he says later in the film. Once the plane is off the ground -- after a shaky blast through some heavy turbulence on take-off -- Whip kicks back and goes to sleep, letting his co-pilot and the auto-pilot do the work.

But he's roused when the plane suffers a severe mechanical failure that puts it into a tailspin. Even as his copilot panics, Whip coolly tries a desperation maneuver, one that allows him to glide the plane to a softer landing than a nosedive crash.

He comes to in a hospital, hailed as a hero (think Sully Sullenberger) because only a half-dozen people died, instead of hundreds. But then the bad news arrives, in the form of Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle), a lawyer for the pilots' union: Blood drawn from Whitaker after he was pulled from the wreckage has revealed the cocktail of alcohol and drugs that were swirling through his system.

And, at that point, there is still more than 90 minutes of movie yet to come.

This review continues on my website.