For its first half-hour, Flight enraptures you with thrilling action and a troubling moral quandary. But after it descends from its high-wire act, it becomes a fairly standard story about a substance abuser and his difficulty getting permanently sober.
The opening scenes are terrific. Commercial airline pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) awakens in a hotel room where he and a flight attendant have spent the night indulging in sex, booze and cocaine. Duty calls, however, and another line of coke gets Whip to the airport, where he has an early departure. In the cockpit, he takes a few hits of oxygen from the mask by his controls. Suddenly, all your worst fears about pilots unfit to fly are staring you in the face.
The wrinkle is that Whip's exactly the pilot you want steering a plane wracked with massive mechanical failure - which is what happens after he downs some vodka and cedes control to his copilot. The aircraft suddenly loses altitude, and Whip manages to land it via crazy, instinctive measures. Six lives are lost, but the vast majority of passengers and crew survive. Whip is a hero, except that he had a .24 blood-alcohol level when pulled from the crash. This poses an interesting dilemma that complicates the ensuing crash investigation.
The film's exciting liftoff is intercut with the actions of an earthbound junkie named Nicole (Kelly Reilly). We don't learn who she is until Whip winds up in the same hospital she's in following an overdose. Nicole starts to clean up, but Whip continues to self-destruct. Nevertheless, their lives continue on parallel paths until the end of the movie. Flight's pat closing sequences are at odds with the complexities presented earlier on. They travel the conventional route and threaten to vastly simplify this story into one of an addict's redemption.
Perhaps it was inevitable that the drama on the ground could never equal the excitement of the action that occupies the movie's beginning sequences. Yet there are many stellar performances among the film's ground crew, and they break up the midsection's slog. Don Cheadle as the lawyer the union hires to represent Whip, and John Goodman as Whip's dealer, are real standouts, as is James Badge Dale in his one scene as a cancer patient. And in his first live-action feature since 2000's Cast Away, director Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump) at least shows he still has a vivid visual sensibility.