Everything else revolves around the federal investigation into the crash and Whip’s insobriety while landing that plane. Does it matter that the jet was defective? Will the revelation that he was drunk change his status as a national hero? How many times will Whip pour out all his alcohol only to have another drink? How many times will Zemeckis play songs that redundantly narrate what we’re seeing on screen and which none of these characters would be listening to?
Given Zemeckis’s ingenuity with animation (“Who Framed Roger Rabbit”), adventure (the “Back to the Future” movies), science fiction (“Contact”), the supernatural thriller (“What Lies Beneath”), and Tom Hanks (“Forrest Gump,” “Cast Away,” “The Polar Express”) — expanding each well beyond its allotted genre — you’d expect he’d be up to something similar with “Flight.” But he’s having so much fun with actual human beings that he starts italicizing the obviousness of the material. This is a movie about addiction in which the director is high on the dime-bag script. He’s high on his star, too.
At some point, Washington takes a stroll down a hotel hallway that is up there with Marlon Brando howling, soaked, for Kim Hunter or Marilyn Monroe pretending to fail to hold down her dress. It’s a quintessential movie star image. We’ll always think of Washington as an actor of commanding solemnity and cool, and that corridor walk really brings down the house: He’s simultaneously in command and completely out of control. But my favorite moment in any Denzel Washington performance happens when his eyes go slack and his mouth hangs stuporously open. It’s his hand-in-the-cookie jar face, and we don’t say enough about it. I imagine that’s because guilt isn’t sexy. And because he has a killer smile and a deadlier stroll and can give an angry speech that’ll knock you to your knees, it’s easy to forget that Washington thoroughly understands comedy.
It’s also easy to forget that this part makes no sense from Washington’s perspective. Whip wasn’t written for a black actor, which is great and all. But casting a black star does complicate the movie’s credibility: Being even functionally trashed belies a pride in the presumable work and endurance Whip must have used to get his license. It’s true, he’s flying for what appears to be a low-rent carrier, but not as a punishment for the undisguised drinking and drug use. It’s hard to imagine a pilot of any race getting away with being this flamboyantly drunk, let alone a black one.
But Washington is at his best when he’s playing complicated men, when he doesn’t care about what we think, when he can use the wattage of his stardom to sell us the subtle social work of his acting. That’s what he did as Malcolm X and as Tom Hanks’s bigoted lawyer in “Philadelphia.” In the last 10 years, at the apogee of his commercial popularity (he’s 57 now), only once has Washington set aside lifting us up in order to expand the elasticity of his appeal, to unburden himself of what a society will think and simply enjoy his stardom. That was in Spike Lee’s “Inside Man,” from 2006. “Flight” is the first time since then.
A performance like this is bigger than television, because as glorious as television is at the moment, and as astonishing as much of the acting is, there’s not much on TV that feels truly, totally, blindingly astral. And given both the current tarnish on stardom (right now the voice of the mighty Julia Roberts is selling us insurance) and the distressing lack of future Julias and Denzels, “Flight” feels like an event, one whose like we might not see at the movies anytime soon: a real-live star working at the height of his everything.