FLIGHT takes off with a hard-to-top opener featuring a nail-biter crash landing of an airliner, begging how-do-you-top-this? The answer is with a superbly navigated performance from Denzel Washington, earning another Oscar nomination for Best Actor, as a fueled-up pilot on a collision course with his own unavoidable destination. Backing from the crew is assured by aces in the supporting aisle, director’s seat and writing cabin; first class service on a down-to-earth trip.

Veteran airline pilot ‘Whip Whitaker’ (Washington, 57) can fly like a bat, but his airborne calm and ready charm can’t hide the albatross in his engine; a booze & drug habit that would stall a rocket. The post-crash lab results are not in his favor. He has support from loyal friends, but a stealthy enemy in the mirror.

Washington unloads a powerhouse display of conflicting characteristics, precisely calibrated, bracingly persuasive, honest to a fault. Whitaker is excellently written; the script by John Gatins was also Oscar nominated. Though you can quibble over technical likelihood (and pilots did), the dramatic human elements come through with, well, flying colors, and everyone in the cast are up to the mark. *

Cruising along with Washington under the fluid direction of Robert Zemeckis are Kelly Reilly (striking as ‘Nicole’, a recovering drug addict who becomes Whip’s partner and glimmer of hope), Bruce Greenwood and Don Cheadle (Whip’s patience-taxed defenders), and John Goodman (the take-no-substitutes candy man).

Further down the list, basking in choice scenes of their own: Melissa Leo, Tamara Tunie, Brian Geraghty, Peter Gerety (always a pleasure), James Badge Dale, Justin Martin, Garcelle Beauvais and Nadine Valazquez (her casual, super erotic nude scene jump-starts the 138 minutes like a walking defibrillator).

Made for $31,000,000, it grossed $161,772,000, 58% of that in States, where it landed 33rd for the year. Washington’s other 2012 release, Safe House, spent up ($85m) and made more ($208m) but it’s a pitiful action flick, the car-chases and gunplay wilting next to the soaring escape velocity of Flight.

* John Gatins had been finessing his script for 13 years, and the characters played by Washington and Reilly reflect his own battles with drugs & alcohol, as well as a fear of flying. Gatins has been sober since 1993. Good for him, and great for the movie, but it’s also fair to note that while it scores as a human drama, acting showcase and sample of production prowess, its credentials rupture a duck when it comes to truth-in-airvertising: real-life airmen took extra umbrage over plentiful technical inaccuracy. Take a search for “Real Pilots Laugh at ‘Flight'”, an article written by Patrick Smith for “The Daily Beast”. It doesn’t hurt enjoyment of the movie, and may put the altitude-jittery at ease regarding captain confidence.

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