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Uneasy course

Flight asks unsettling questions about blame

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Never mind all the statistics that seem to indicate flying is the safest way to travel. The facts remain: You're in a big aluminum tube suspended 40,000 feet in the air, surrounded by dark clouds and lightning. When you get on an airplane, you've no choice but to put your faith in the sturdiness of a 35-year-old aircraft, the cooperation of the weather and the competence of the flight crew. And if the plane explodes mid-air or crashes to the ground, there's not a lot of room for optimism.

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The airplane crash in Flight is among the best and most terrifying I've seen, but that's only the beginning. Denzel Washington stars as Whip Whitaker, the pilot responsible for saving most everyone on board. We first meet him in a hotel room an hour before the doomed flight, after a night of cocaine, alcohol and debauchery. When the plane goes down, there is the inevitable flurry of media coverage, insurance claims, federal and—if it comes to that—criminal investigations. Something bad happened, people died, and somebody or something will have to pay for it.

Did you know that "Act of God" is an actual legal distinction? I always thought it was just an expression, but in the wake of a disaster, the paperwork has to be specific, and somebody has to be held accountable.

In regards to the investigation, two facts are at odds: 1) The plane almost certainly went down due to mechanical failure, not human error. 2) The pilot was loaded.

This is Denzel Washington at his very best. He wears an expression I've never seen on him in any other film, and yet I know it well. It's the look of a grown, frightened child, masked with denial, anger and righteous indignation.

John Goodman plays Harling Mays, the consummate enabler. Not long after Whitaker awakes in the hospital, Mays bursts onto the scene with a rastafari backpack filled with stuff to get his friend's head right, loudly and without apology. Remember that there are two aspects to the first step in Alcoholics Anonymous: Admitting that you have a problem comes easily enough. It's the surrendering that Mays has no interest in. To the nurse he says, "You hate me. That's something we have in common. We both hate me."

The film marches along a traditional Alcoholics Anonymous narrative, but it works here, because so often the stereotypes are true. (I know a kid with a 3.5 GPA who stops off at the Press Box for 10 shots of vodka before acing every one of his college tests, because he can't help himself, sure, but it's more than that. He wants to prove how much the world has let him down.) Alcoholics are manipulators and liars. They abandon their children. They operate heavy machinery and endanger other peoples' lives, but that's not the whole story. It's possible to be both very good at your job and a hopeless alcoholic. Whitaker still expertly landed the damn plane, didn't he?

Flight is director Robert Zemeckis's first live-action film since Cast Away and only his second R-rated feature. It's a good look on him. Along with screenwriter John Gatins, they've created deep characters with clear motives and interesting things to say. The story asks hard questions and then deprives us of easy answers. It's the best film I've seen so far this year.

Flight continues at the Carmike 12.

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