Review: 'Flight' has ups, downs

Film starts with action, then dives into character study

The new Robert Zemeckis film starring Denzel Washington "Flight" is near perfect. But much like the director's character driven film "Cast Away," it does have a flaw. Its ascent is so gripping, so edge-of-your-seat, and so full of action, that the rest of the movie, as it burrows into alcoholism and human emotion, feels like it crawls to get the momentum going.

"Flight" is Zemeckis' first live-action film since "Cast Away." He's spent the last 12 years in the magical movie land of performance-capture technology creating "The Polar Express," "Beowulf" and "A Christmas Carol." Despite "Flight" being a whole different ball game, the opening crash sequence seems influenced by the filmmaker's years of being in that high-tech movie world.

Washington as pilot Whip Whitaker must, however, share the stage with this opening beast, including wrestling with an airplane that his character flies upside down just before it crashes. And like the heroic pilot who glides most of the passengers to safety (102 souls onboard, we hear more than a few times), Washington guides this character study into place. Let's say this right off the top: This is an Oscar winning performance from beginning to end, and it will likely earn Washington his sixth Oscar nomination; he's won two.

When we first meet the pilot, he's sharing an Orlando hotel room with a sexy flight attendant (Nadine Velazquez). The two haven't slept yet, but in a few hours they'll hit the friendly skies. Whitaker is addicted to booze and drugs. His breakfast of champions is whiskey and a few lines of cocaine. He's also an adrenaline junkie, who, when he gets in the cockpit, tells his new co-pilot to forget about the computers, he'll fly the plane manually. You end up hating and loving him at the same time.

Written by John Gatins, the movie plays out like a novel; the story of a pilot with a lot of promise who ends up being unable to fight his demons anymore. He's been able to coast along, playing the role of the dashing pilot for a Southern airline, until one day his plane falls apart in the air. Then he gets put under a microscope.

Lauded as a hero for saving lives, his skill is called into question when a toxicology report shows that drugs and alcohol were in his system when he landed the plane. Don Cheadle is his usual cool, calm and collected self (and he plays it so well) as the lawyer who is hired by the airline's union to clean up what has now become Whip's mess.

An odd romance that Whip strikes up with a heroin addict in the stairwell of the hospital is forced, but Kelly Reilly makes it work, especially trading her real life English accent for a downright seamless Alabama drawl. John Goodman as Whip's crazy drug dealing friend adds comic relief to a film that sometimes recalls the grittiness of that classic alcohol soaked drama "Leaving Las Vegas."

At 138 minutes, "Flight" is a long haul and it sometimes seems that way, but Washington is worth staying strapped in your seat. And that crash in the beginning? Well, it's one heck of a ride.