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In the last decade or so, Robert Zemeckis has made a name for himself using motion capture technology to unintentionally (we hope) freak out the majority of the populace with creepy Christmas movies and an adaptation of a book we all learned to hate in college (or high school, if you’re a smarty pants.) Before that, he was famous for such deep, nuanced works as “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” and “Back to the Future.”  So how in the world does a guy like him end up making a movie like this?

Denzel Washington plays a commercial airline pilot who pulls off a heroic crash-landing when his plane goes kaput.  He saves a lot of lives, and when he argues “no one else could’ve landed that plane like I did,” it’s a fact.  Authorities at the FAA put 10 pilots in simulators under the same conditions, and all of them kill every person on the plane.  This is one of the things that makes “Flight” great: there is absolutely no doubt that Washington is an excellent pilot whose extraordinary instincts and level-headedness in a moment of crisis make him a hero.

But here’s the other side: he’s also an alcoholic and a cocaine addict, and the day he was flying that plane, he was both drunk and high.   If the toxicology report ends up in the wrong hands, he’ll go to prison for the rest of his life.  He tries, and fails, to get sober after the accident, and then he tries, and fails, to manage his drinking and keep it under control.   His drinking has ruined his marriage, cost him the respect of his son, and is on the verge of ruining his life completely.

The genius of “Flight” is that it presents this man as both these things – hero and addict – with no hint of ambiguity in between.  There’s never any reason to believe that Washington’s substance abuse caused the accident.  A mechanical error was responsible for that.  And, as the film progresses, any hope that Washington will be able to straighten himself out and quit the drugs and booze by sheer willpower and discipline quickly evaporates.  This guy is a hero, and he’s a mess.  He has saved many lives, and is actively destroying his own.  Most movies would lean one way or the other.  Zemeckis keeps flight right in the middle.  It’s fascinating to watch.

Denzel Washington, who has a career full of impressive performances, delivers the performance of his life here.  It is absolutely essential to the film.  It would be really easy to dislike his character, but his quiet dignity and restraint keeps that from happening.  It would be even easier to overplay the part, chewing scenery as an out of control addict (seen that plenty of times before.) He stays far, far away from that kind of maudlin emotionalism.

Seems like every year or so a film comes along that reminds me of Flannery O’Connor’s notion of grace — a much more savage and mysterious grace than I’m used to.  Like in “Secret Sunshine” and “The Music Never Stopped,” this movie leaves me thinking.  One would never say that God would cause a plane to crash in order to bring one man face to face with his addictions and need for help.  And yet a plane crash undeniably brings this man to that place.  How things like this happen is a wonder; why is a mystery.  I’m once again thankful for movies like this that remind me that sometimes the world works that way.    

Verdict – Highly Recommended – one of the best films of 2012.

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