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Denzel Washington soars high in thrilling 'Flight'

Denzel Washington in "Flight."

REVIEW: After 12 years spent mucking about in the motion capture playpen, Robert Zemeckis parachutes back to where he belongs, in big-time, big-star, live-action filmmaking, with "Flight." A gritty, full-bodied character study about a man whose most exceptional deed may, ironically, have resulted from his most flagrant flaw, this absorbing drama provides Denzel Washington with one of his meatiest, most complex roles, and he flies with it. World premiering as the closing night attraction at the 50th New York Film Festival, the Paramount release will be warmly welcomed by audiences in search of thoughtful, powerful adult fare upon its Nov. 2 opening.

Onscreen for nearly the entire running time, Washington has found one of the best parts of his career in Whip Whitaker, a middle-age pilot for a regional Southern airline who knows his stuff and can still get away with behaving half his age. In the film's raw opening scene, he's lying in bed in Orlando at 7 a.m. after an all-night booze, drugs and sex marathon with a sexy flight attendant. With a little help from some white powder, he reassures her they will make their 9 o'clock flight for Atlanta.

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The gripping 20-minute interlude that follows has in every way been brilliantly orchestrated by Zemeckis and will mesmerize and terrify audiences in a manner that will make the film widely talked about, a must-see for many and perhaps a must-avoid for a few. The 102 passengers strap in for what could be bumpy flight; the weather looks awful. Rain is pelting down and the sky is dark but it's all in a day's work for Whip, who settles into the cockpit and greets a new co-pilot (Brian Gerety), while also sneaking two bottles' worth of on-board vodka into his orange juice.

With his night's companion Katerina (Nadine Velazquez) working the passenger compartment, Whit zooms up into the clouds, shaking up the passengers and scaring the co-pilot as he rams at top speed toward a pocket of clear sky. Having achieved momentary calm, Whit actually falls asleep at the controls but not for long; the jet loses its hydraulics and suddenly plunges into a uncontrolled descent, its engines on fire. After lowering the landing gear and dumping fuel, Whip freaks everyone out, and creates total chaos on board, by inverting the plane, manually forcing it to fly upside down to achieve some stability on the way down before righting the ship at the last minute to attempt an emergency landing in a field.

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This breath-shortening sequence is eye-poppingly realistic, with cutting Eisenstein would have admired, right down to the exquisite details of Jehovah's witnesses scrambling to get out of the way on the ground as the plane's wing clips the steeple of their rural church. Miraculously, the plane lands more or less intact, although six people die. For his part, Whip is hospitalized with minor injuries. His daring and ingenuity having saved most of the passengers from certain death, he becomes an immediate national hero.

But this is not a role Whip is keen to embrace. Depressed to learn that Katerina was among those killed, he's visited by old flying buddy and now pilot's union rep Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood), as well as by his "Lebowski"-world drug dealer Harling Mays (John Goodman), whom he instructs to keep the vodka away. At the same time, Whip meets red-headed Nicole (Kelly Reilly), an addict hospitalized after an o.d., with whom he develops a certain affinity.

Anxious to avoid the lurking media, Whip slips away to his family farm to hide out. The property belonged to his grandfather, his father's Cessna in which Whip learned to fly is still in the barn and the cabinets are full of booze, which he methodically pours out. If he could stay here forever, unmolested and unnoticed, you suspect he would. But a tempest of trouble awaits him in the real world, as he learns what he already had to know; toxicological tests have revealed the booze and coke in his system at the time of the crash, which could result in serious prison time.

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From this point on, the original screenplay by John Gatins (Coach Carter, Dreamer, Real Steel) closely charts the ins and outs and ups and downs of Whip's addiction, a struggle he shares part-time with Nicole. Unlike him, she has nothing to show for her life, as well as no prospects unless she shapes up once and for all. When Whip learns what's in store for him legally, he hits the bottle again just as Nicole goes on the wagon, which doesn't stop them from having a brief liaison. Her AA sessions are not for him.

Whip also resists the help of attorney Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle), a stiffly humorless man who's obviously good at his job, as he paves the way for his client to get off if he behaves himself. That, then, becomes the major question as approaches a big public hearing before the chief inquisitor (Melissa Leo), along with whether Whip can cut through his layers of self-protection and denial to finally confront his devils and the truth about himself.

The close scrutiny to Whip's internal currents cuts two ways, on the one hand investing the drama with a deeply explored and complex central character, on the other weighing it down a bit too much with familiar addiction issues for which the possible answers are ultimately limited and clear-cut. The script commendably advances the notion that Whip had the cojones to make his bold move to save the plane because he was high but then perhaps prolongs the search for exactly how he'll have to pay the price. At 139 minutes, the film takes a bit longer than necessary to do what it needs to do.

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But Washington keeps it alive and real at all times as a man who, a failed marriage and an estranged son aside, would seem to have had things his own way most of his life and has never been forced to take a clear-eyed look at himself. The actors hits notes that are tricky and nuanced and that he's never played before, contributing to a large, layered performance that defines the film.

Reilly (Sherlock Holmes), Greenwood, Goodman and Cheadle are all solid in functional supporting roles. As a live-action director, Zemeckis hasn't lost a step during his long layoff; even though most of the settings are prosaic and even unphotogenic -- hotel and hospital rooms, downscale dwellings, conference rooms -- he and cinematographer Don Burgess deliver bold, well conceived images that flatter the actors. The exceptional and seamless visual effects for the traumatic flight sequence make that experience linger and reverberate throughout the entire film, just as it does for the characters who lived through them. 

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