Turbulence ahead

A compelling performance by Denzel Washington as a heroic but troubled pilot

Ready to crash.

Ready to crash.

Starring Denzel Washington, Nadine Velazquez and Don Cheadle. Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Cinemark 14, Rated R.
Rated 4.0

In the new movie by Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forest Gump, etc.), Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is, in his own words, “flying.” And it’s apparent early on that he’s right about that in more ways than one: He’s an airline pilot of unusual gifts, and he’s a spectacularly reckless consumer of drugs and alcohol as well.

Whitaker practices both kinds of flying more or less interchangeably, and in the course of Flight, a heroic exploit that is also a lethal misadventure forces him, eventually, to face up to the full consequences of who and what he has become.

Skillfully scripted by John Gatins, Flight is a rousing, pungent character study, with a fine, nuanced performance from a smoldering Washington. And while it is not the action/disaster epic that its preview trailers might seem to suggest, it does ride a long way on the energy of its flawed, semi-tragic protagonist’s daring and swagger.

In moving from the brilliantly staged crash-landing episode near the beginning to Whitaker’s scaled-down days of legal, moral and emotional reckoning near the end, the film is in a sense following a path of diminishing dramatic returns. But one of the great pleasures of Flight comes of Zemeckis and Gatins having generated a fascinating set of secondary characters and stories that both broaden and heighten the dramas, public as well as personal, of Whip Whitaker.

The film starts with Whitaker and a sexy flight attendant named Katerina (Nadine Velazquez) arising from a night of sex and drugs a scant two hours before they are due to take a planeload of passengers from Orlando to Atlanta in stormy weather. Whitaker has a long-standing attachment to another attendant on the flight, a single mom named Margaret (Tamara Tunie), and he’s sharing the cockpit for the first time with co-pilot Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty).

Whitaker’s ex-wife (Garcelle Beauvais) is heard from in the opening scene but not actually seen until much later, when Whitaker tries to reconnect with his estranged teenage son (an excellent Justin Martin). Other family background emerges via the Georgia farm where Whitaker hides out after the crash. It’s been passed down from his grandfather, and his late father’s Cessna 172 is still housed in a hangar on the property.

Kelly Reilly is very good as Nicole, a red-headed drug addict with whom Whitaker has a stormy post-crash romance. John Goodman is at his rowdy best as Harling Mays, an ebullient drug-meister who makes house calls even while Whitaker is hospitalized or facing indictment.

And three other striking characters appear during the legal finagling part of the story: Bruce Greenwood as an old Whitaker comrade who now heads up the pilots’ union, Don Cheadle as a Chicago lawyer who specializes in defusing malpractice cases, and Melissa Leo as the lead investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board.