Eleven years after Training Day, there’s still something thrilling about seeing Denzel Washington devote himself to a fatally flawed character. And they don’t come much more flawed than the booze-chugging, coke-snorting pilot he plays in Flight, Robert Zemeckis’s first live-action film since Cast Away (2000). As in that movie, the catalyst is a plummeting plane. Through a mixture of daredevil instincts and technical know-how, Washington’s Whip Whitaker manages to guide the malfunctioning aircraft to a mostly intact landing. He’s a hero, but there’s a catch: The captain wasn’t exactly flying sober. Though he saved almost all the passengers and had nothing to do with the mechanical problems, an investigation is launched. Hounded by the pilots union’s vigilant attorney (Don Cheadle), Whitaker slips into a personal and professional tailspin—a liquor-fueled race to rock bottom.
So long as it focuses on thorny moral questions of guilt and blame, as well as Washington’s anguished battle with the bottle, Flight soars. Yet at nearly two and half hours, it’s also needlessly flabby, introducing distracting supporting characters like Kelly Reilly’s thinly sketched addict love interest and John Goodman’s broadly comic dealer. Zemeckis, too, seems a little rusty; while the plane crash is a tour de force, the film otherwise suffers from slack pacing. The director’s biggest blunder, shared with screenwriter John Gatins, is a betrayal of the dramatic turbulence. With material this tough, steering for clear skies feels like a cop-out.