Flight's Rocky Landing

Despite Denzel Washington's elevated performance, the film never takes off.

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When the commercial jet Captain Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is piloting unexpectedly nose dives mid-descent—succumbing to an epic malfunction that will later be described as an "act of God"—the veteran pilot maneuvers an incredible feat, gaining enough control to navigate in the vessel into an empty field and crashing as gracefully as physics will allow. The collision—which under any lesser piloting would have wiped out the entire plane—only kills a few people. Whitaker is instantly hailed a hero, celebrated by the media, thanked by the passengers.

But Captain Whip Whitaker pulled off the whole rescue with three times the legal limit of alcohol and more than a few bumps of cocaine in his system. And thus, Flight's familiar question of whether a bad person can also be a hero is born.

[Read the U.S. News review of Argo.]

It doesn't take long after the crash that attention turns to Whitaker's state during the flight. Dealing with Whitaker's situation is his union rep Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood), an old pal, and Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle), a whip-smart lawyer brought on for his defense. But Whitaker has his own internal issues to deal with: namely his alcohol and drug addictions that the crash did not scare away.

After the terrifying crash sequence that will make even the steeliest viewer wary of boarding another plane, the front-loaded Flight rocks and rolls.

Whitaker crosses paths with Nicole Maggen (Kelly Reilly), a pretty recovering heroin addict in the aftermath of the accident, and at first appears that the two will be each other's redemption. However, Whitaker can't keep his own addictions at bay for very long, and the question that drives the rest is not whether Whitaker can use the horrific accident to turn his life around. It's whether he can hold his act together long enough to fly through a testimony that could either clear his name or send him to jail for life.

[Photos: Skydiver Shatters Records Jumping From Edge of Space]

Despite its dark themes of addiction and deception, the film is not without its fun. With a slick soundtrack of Joe Cocker and the Rolling Stones, the drug use is at times glamorized à la Blow. Every abuser needs a partner in crime, and Whitaker's best friend Harling Mays (John Goodman) has a bigger than life persona that brings humor from the moment he and his magic bag of illicit goodies enter a scene. His turn aside, Flight can never entirely shake its darkness.

Washington is excellent as Whitaker, taking each courageous high and drug-addled low to its physical extreme without ever falling over the edge of caricature. However, his character can never behave himself long enough to secure our sympathy and properly attain the title of antihero; the true heroics of his piloting soon fade away as he grows increasingly antagonistic to those trying to save him. His final redemption is by no means a surprise, but neither is it fully believable. Whitaker never earns the faith the film finally asks us to put in his ultimate goodness.

Flight could have been a fun tale of a high-flying pilot (in both senses of the word) who, by saving the day, can escape his fate. Or it could have been a dark tale of the dependency issues that can claim even the heroes among us. Instead, it tries to be both, and, despite marvelous acting and a well-paced narrative, never reaches the heights it aspires.

Flight opens nationwide Friday, November 2.

Tierney Sneed is associate editor of U.S. News Opinion. E-mail her at tsneed@usnews.com and follow her on Twitter.