Director Robert Zemeckis is already responsible for one of the most harrowing plane crashes in movie history: the disastrous voyage that led to Tom Hanks being Cast Away. Twelve years later, Zemeckis outdoes himself with the opening 20 minutes of Flight, in which alcohol- and cocaine-fueled Captain Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) must make a miraculous crash landing when the jet he's piloting suffers a severe mechanical breakdown in midair. His quick thinking saves all but six lives on the plane, but those deaths trigger a federal investigation that seems destined to uncover his substance abuse.
That opening act is a piece of peerless filmmaking, an unrelentingly tense and upsetting evocation of a near-death experience. Sadly, the rest of Flight is an old-fashioned addiction drama with Whitaker struggling to stay sober, but refusing to accept anyone else's help to do so.
This is the kind of role actors live for, after all who wouldn't want to play a guy who's both a national hero and an addict, and Washington certainly demands your attention. He commands the screen, playing the gifted pilot's cool-in-a-crisis authority as effectively as he does Whip's self-loathing when he starts hitting the bottle time after time.
Zemeckis and screenwriter John Gatins turn this battle between Whip's two selves into a basic visual scheme between alcohol and religion. Talk of God and higher powers peppers the film, and for all of the times we see the sloshed captain swigging a Budweiser or a gallon of vodka, we see him confronted with religious iconography just as often. Putting the central conflict of the picture in such stark terms would work better if the film were streamlined, but Flight clocks in at about 135 minutes, and it wallows in Whip's contradictions for so long that the symbolism quickly grows heavy-handed. There's little narrative drive, so we wait for the big moment when Whitaker has to testify about what happened, wondering if he's going to come clean or continue his slide into self-destruction.
A very strong cast is mostly underutilized: Don Cheadle doesn't have enough to do as Whip's lawyer, Bruce Greenwood is fine as the beleagured man's best friend, and Kelly Reilly does what she can with the worst character in the movie -- a fellow junkie who strikes up a friendship with Whitaker when they are in the hospital together. Only John Goodman makes an impression as Whip's freewheeling dealer -- whose every entrance is unsubtly scored to the Rolling Stones classic "Sympathy for the Devil."
Flight isn't a bad movie, but it isn't a good one either. After his 12-year detour into motion-capture filmmaking, it continues Zemeckis' attempts to deal with big ideas -- it's a natural follow-up to Forrest Gump, Contact, and Cast Away -- but he's shed practically all of the impish wit that made his earliest work, like Used Cars and Back to the Future, so memorable. He's matured in the least appealing sense of the phrase.