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denzel-flightNervous flyers will not enjoy the first half hour of “Flight,” the new film from “Castaway” director Robert Zemeckis and star Denzel Washington. If the nervous nellies can make it through the highflying plane crash that serves as the catalyst for the personal story of a troubled pilot (Washington), however, they are in a more earthbound tale of excess and expectation.

When we first meet Whip (Washington) it’s 7:14 in the am and he is hours away from piloting short haul flight Southjet 227 from Orlando to Atlanta. He’s also simultaneously arguing with his ex-wife on the phone, drinking beer, snorting cocaine and watching his girlfriend, a flight attendant get dressed after a wild night in a generic hotel room.

Hours later he’s behind the wheel of a jet, piloting it and the 102 on-board souls. After successfully navigating around a patch of brutal turbulence a mechanical malfunction threatens to down the plane. It is Whit’s expertise, and the audacious move of inverting the plane so it can glide to relative safety, that saves 96 of the 102 passengers and crew.

Hailed as a hero at first, soon his unsavory personal habits bring him under suspicion. Was it a malfunction of a mechanical or personal nature that brought the plane down?

Is there another a-list leading man who explores the dark sides of their characters as often as Washington? Will Smith and Tom Cruise will occasionally let the heroic side of their on-screen personas take a back seat, but Washington revels in mucking around in the mud. From “Training Day” to “American Gangster” and “Safe House” he crafts complex characters you wouldn’t want to sit next to on the bus.

Whit is a different take on this theme, however. This time around the anti-hero is functional in day-to-day life despite his predilection for wine, woman and cocaine. He’s charming one minute, enraged the next and passed out on the floor the minute after that.

Denzel manages to subtly capture the ego and hubris that allows Whit to present a sober face to the public, even though the film’s visual language is frequently not as refined. A close-up of Washington’s hand grasping a mini bottle of vodka and the accompanying swoosh sound looks like something that should be in a commercial not in a film about the effects of alcoholism.

“Flight” is a quiet movie about troubled people, acts of god, ethical questions about accepting responsibility and the callousness of business in the wake of tragedy. It’s about a lot of things, many of which Zemeckis simply flits around before moving on, but at its core is Washington, who despite an unnecessary redemptive ending, effectively brings us into the messy world of addiction.

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