Judging from the commercials, you might be forgiven for thinking that this is the story of Denzel Washington heroically saving a plane full of passengers from certain death, but the film’s barn-burning crash sequence is over by the 25-minute mark. What follows is an intense portrait of a self-destructive man in what seems like a death spiral.

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Pilot Whip Whitaker (Washington) makes up in Orlando with a hangover and a call from his ex-wife about money, while his flight attendant girlfriend (Nadine Velazquez) looks for her clothes. He has a flight to Atlanta in a couple of hours, so he does a line of cocaine to perk himself up.

Despite a blood chemistry that would render the average man comatose and some very rough weather, he manages to get the plane in the air. On approach to Atlanta, however, a broken elevator puts the plane into a crash drive. Calmly, and with the aid of a surreptitious vodka and orange juice, Whitaker manages to level the plane out by flying upside down, and lands the plane in a field. Thanks to his quick thinking, only six of the 102 people on board lose their lives. One of them, however, is Katerina, the woman in his hotel room at the beginning of the film. Unfortunately for Whip, part of the routine investigation includes blood tests, so he is facing criminal charges even as he is being praised as a hero.

The balance of the film portrays the efforts to reverse his downward trajectory by those closest to him. Due to his alcoholism and drug abuse, however, those closest to him mostly consist of his lawyer (Don Cheadle), his union representative (Bruce Greenwood), and his drug dealer (John Goodman). In the hospital after the crash, he connects with Nicole, (Kelly Reilly), a porn star recovering from a drug overdose. If anyone has a chance to make Whitaker face his demons, she is the one.

While the relationship with Nicole is touching, it also highlights one of the few flaws in this film. She is wheeled to the ambulance after her overdose just in time for the paramedics to witness Whip’s plane flying low overhead and upside down. Their connection seems to exists primarily for the convenience of the plot, to give Denzel Washington someone to talk to. The film seems to walk a tightrope between never taking the easy path while also never doing anything really unexpected either.

Hey, don’t tell me how to lie about my drinking, okay? I know how to lie about my drinking. I’ve been lying about my drinking my whole life.

It’s safe to say that the movie lives and dies on Washington’s performance. Whip Whitaker remains just sympathetic enough to maintain our rooting interest while pissing all over many well-intentioned efforts to save him from his own self-destructive behavior. Even the NTSB investigator (Melissa Leo) tries to throw him a life line. The result is that Whitaker remains a largely passive character, which makes for an increasingly inert narrative as it reaches what should be the climax.

None of the other characters, except maybe Nicole, seem to exist beyond their roles in the plot, elevated only by the talent of the actors on screen. John Goodman relies on his established film persona to give his drug dealer a presence on screen as he strides on screen to the strains of “Sympathy for the Devil.” That choice of song also highlights a nagging lack of narrative subtlety that plagues the film to the end. Whitaker’s ultimate fate is emotionally valid on one level, but still seems too pat to be worthy of a film of this calibre.

Flight is a very good movie that had the potential to be a whole lot better.

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