Flight is Robert Zemeckis's somewhat rusty, but accomplished return to dramatic territory not seen Cast Away and Denzel Washington is simply riveting in a leading role much like Tom Hanks as a FedEx supervisor in that oddly surreal, equally poignant and polished tale.
An Unstoppable Washington does a lot with his damaged ace commercial airline pilot Capt. "Whip" Whitaker with intensity and aplomb that may remind some of his acclaimed work in Training Day and as boxer Ruben Carter in The Hurricane.
The opening definitely has an adult air to it with Whip whipped in a frenzy of alcohol, drugs, and intimacy before an Atlanta-bound fight from Tampa. His drug of choice counteracts the aftereffects of the hard liquor.
After takeoff a mechanical malfunction occurs during heavy turbulence, the inebriated Whip has to deal with a fatal nose-dive, and displays much pilot prowess (an inversion) to crash land in an open field where only two crew and four passengers are lost. This "miracle" wasn't simulated successfully by nearly a dozen other pilots, but many questions remain after a midair catastrophe is averted.
Flying while legally drunk is substanshated by toxicology, but there's a pilots' union crack lawyer, Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle) who knows how to handle it during Whip's hearings in front of the FAA assuming he does an about-face on his ruinous behavior. Having kept his addictions in check he bonds with redheaded crestfallen drug-addled prostitute Nicole (Kelly Reilly), but has trouble with his personal demons and embracing the help from those closest to him.
Besides Cheadle's pivotal role, there is John Goodman (Argo) again doing effortless witty backup as Whip's drug-dealing friend Harling who helps sneak him out of the hospital. The Whip/Nicole connection (with solid work from Reilly) is crucial to Flight melodramatically soaring even if it implausibly ultimately loses altitude with an uplifting climax and denouement. Bruce Greenwood and Brian Geraghty also have their moments as a longtime union friend and copilot, respectively.
If it isn't really quite the sum of its many riveting parts including the tautly horrific early aerial sequence, Zemeckis (known for motion-capture animation like The Polar Express and Disney's A Christmas Carol in recent years) shows why he is a stellar live-actin helmer with his crackerjack craftsmen, including composer Alan Silvestri and lenser Don Burgess. Where he takes this heroic, if irresponsible pilot suddenly held under scrutiny for an accident turns out to be a rather showy character study espoused by one of Hollywood's high and mighty, Washington.