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Pilot with an addiction to living the high life

Flight (15)

HEAD IN THE CLOUDS: In the Robert Zemeckis-directed Flight, functioning alcoholic Whip Whitaker is played by king of cool Denzel Washington.
HEAD IN THE CLOUDS: In the Robert Zemeckis-directed Flight, functioning alcoholic Whip Whitaker is played by king of cool Denzel Washington.

HHH

Dir: Robert Zemeckis

With: Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly

Runtime: 138 minutes

WARNING: Robert Zemeckis's tale of an alcoholic pilot involved in an air disaster contains scenes which some viewers may find disturbing. But enough of Piers Morgan's cameo, what about the plane crash?

One should really flag it up in capitals as "THAT" plane crash, as Zemeckis, returning to live action filmmaking after 12 years trying to breath life into motion capture animation, pulls off a crash scene that is one of the best ever seen on a movie screen. Zemeckis's crash is up there with Cameron's sinking of the Titanic and Guillermin and Allen's Towering Inferno for sheer stomach-churning, heart-palpitating, never-forgotten spectacle.

Adding to the allure (unless you are a nervous flyer, in which case try Tinkerbell and the Secret of the Wings instead), is an Oscar-nominated performance by Denzel Washington as Whip Whitaker, the pilot flying too close to life's edge. When it comes to delivering a high IQ blockbuster, Washington once again proves that he is still the professor of cool.

The trouble with Flight is that after a supersonic start, Zemeckis's drama goes into glide mode. What is initially sharp and focused becomes soft and blurry as the screenplay by John Gatins (also Oscar-nominated) indulges in exploring the man at the controls. Either idea – the tale of a crash and its investigation, or a study of addiction – would work well on its own. Bolting them together, though, lessens the impact of each.

We first meet Whitaker when he is on a stopover in Florida before a short hop flight back to Atlanta. As we can see from the clues strewn around the room, he hasn't spent the night reading Biggles stories. But after a shower and shave, he's ready to be up and at 'em again, the very picture of suave professionalism. Have aviator shades, will dazzle.

Post that crash scene, investigators descend to find out what happened. Whitaker has questions to answer, the media has a tale to pursue. From being just another working pilot, Whitaker has become a story. Hence the appearance of Piers M (on the subject of which, the ever shy Mr Morgan tweeted after seeing the film he could "smell Oscars". Someone responded that they could smell something all right, but it wasn't an Oscar. Cyberspace: so cruel).

With a lawyer (Don Cheadle) and his union rep (the ever dependable Bruce Greenwood) in his corner, Whitaker faces up to the investigation, but not his behaviour. Among those urging him to do so is a fellow troubled soul, Kelly Reilly. She has had her own problems, but is seeking help. It is an interesting sidebar, addict trying to help addict, but after her character is introduced, Nicole doesn't have too much to do bar serve as a counterpoint to Whitaker.

Evidence of Whitaker's bad behaviour, and that of others, is accompanied, in time-honoured, ridiculously cliched Hollywood fashion, with snatches of Sweet Jane and the Stones' Gimme Shelter. Someone in Hollywood history must at one time have signed a deal with the devil pledging to use one or other of these tunes whenever there are drugs around. Please, just say no in future.

Just as Hollywood likes its Stones and Velvet Underground when someone is getting stoned, so it is partial to tales of redemption and recovery. The sinner saved. Gatins's screenplay at least has the intelligence and good grace to show the path to peace is one strewn with dirty great boulders and treacherous little dips.

Washington, too, takes what could have been a familiar portrait of addiction and makes it fresh. Whitaker is that hidden creature, the functioning alcoholic, and as we see him go about his business we understand how he has been able to go on for so long in this job, and why he is so reluctant to face up to the fact he has a problem.

In bringing this across, Washington gets to show the full range of his acting abilities, the many faces of Denzel. His Whitaker is alternately serene or out of control; he is sexy or ugly; he is charming or gently bullying. He deserves, in short, that Oscar nomination.

This is the first time Washington and Zemeckis have worked together, remarkable given how long they have each been around. Both are old school in the best possible way, in that they set out to deliver a solid evening's entertainment and by and large they deliver. That Flight aims to go further, to dabble in the stuff of someone's soul, is its triumph and otherwise.

Not entirely sure how far it wants to delve into Whitaker's plight, it loses its way.

The first third is terrific, though. After that the flaws are forgivable (bar Gimme Shelter's 345th appearance).

This is easy stuff to get horribly wrong. You can't imagine, for example, Tom Hanks, star of Zemeckis's Forrest Gump, pulling this off. But with Washington the material is in the safest hands around.

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