‘Flight’’ is a so-so movie with Denzel Washington as a commercial-airline pilot who crash-lands a plane while drunk, high, hung over, and horny. It doesn’t do much that you couldn’t anticipate just by seeing the trailer — the trailer is more exciting than the movie itself. The script, by John Gatins, fails to invent a single character you couldn’t find in a televised episode of anything: starchy airline executives, one boisterous hippie drug dealer, a no-nonsense committee chairperson, a scuzzy landlord, an angelic junkie, peppy super-Christians; they’re all here, seemingly courtesy of some series that HBO probably wouldn’t pick up for a second season.
TV, it’s been said, is the new movies. For about 15 years, it’s certainly been up to more than the movies, and more reliably. The writing is often stronger, the characters deeper and more surprising. And it’s cheap to watch. But even after a quarter century, you know what’s still worth $6 to $15, plus the cost of a baby sitter and parking and popcorn, nachos, and a plastic tray of those weirdly oily pretzel nuggets? Two hours with Denzel Washington. Not two hours of him blind at the end of the world (“The Book of Eli’’) or stoically training a less starry protégé (“Unstoppable,’’ “Safe House’’), not two hours of him taking a flame-thrower to an absurd movie because he can (“Training Day’’). Just a couple of hours with Washington reclining within the contours of a role until a piece of cardboard becomes a character.
All Washington really does in “Flight’’ is spend a decade’s worth of capital on a morally busted part. He plays a veteran airline pilot named “Whip’’ Whitaker. In the opening scene, Whip wakes up in a hotel bed with a flight attendant (Nadine Velazquez). It’s the morning after, and one of his first acts is to swig from a beer can. They do cocaine. Then they’re off to fly a plane.
Not much later, on a hellaciously stormy morning, Whip’s in the cockpit for a routine flight from Orlando to Atlanta. His young copilot (Brian Geraghty) looks nervous (Whip is obviously on something). He looks worried when Whip cavalierly thrusts the jet out of turbulence. Once the plane begins to malfunction and fall apart, he looks alarmed to realize that the man who’d just been passed out beside him is actually an ingenious daredevil. The exhilaration in that sequence arises, in part, from Whip’s confidence. He flew planes in the Navy. His father was a Tuskegee Airman. Geraghty’s character doesn’t know any of this, and the actor’s increasingly narrowed expression is a little seminar in panicked disbelief. The look on Washington’s face is tense, but smooth and controlled. He didn’t break the plane, but he’ll fix the landing. This is the demeanor of the Denzel you want in the cockpit of your movies.
The director of “Flight’’ is Robert Zemeckis, who appears to be drawn to these sorts of epic crashes. He knocked a FedEx airbus out of the sky in “Cast Away.’’ What he does in “Flight’’ is impressive (at some point, the plane careens toward the earth upside down while a flight attendant climbs to the ceiling to fetch a boy who’s come loose from his seat). But eventually the movie comes to earth, and you begin to have the sinking feeling that Zemeckis might actually be prouder of the non-aviation stuff. For reasons that would make sense only on a television show that could spend an entire season unpacking it, “Flight’’ interrupts these introductory moments with Whip to assault us with scenes of a cute but grimy young redhead named Nicole (Kelly Reilly) shooting up heroin and not paying her rent. Right around the time the plane crashes, so, too, does she. This is about where I contemplated throwing my notebook at the screen. For “Flight’’ won’t be content to tell the tale of one addict. It will dare to be a tale of two, in which Nicole will attempt to rescue Whip with love and sex and light housekeeping.
These two meet, as patients, in the stairwell of a hospital, along with a third man, a cancer patient (James Badge Dale). They share cigarettes and some thoughts about their respective situations. And there’s graceful symmetry in this moment that you can tell really excites Zemeckis. He’s an invaluable entertainment visionary who can be too happy to have his feet on the ground — Look, Ma: No effects! (He smartly fills coach-class roles with first-class actors, including Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood, Tamara Tunie, Melissa Leo, and John Goodman.) That stairwell encounter is a well-made, well-acted, totally implausible scene with tin-foil wisdom. None of it has any bearing on what follows, but it’s there to provide the illusion of depth. In fact, Reilly’s character is so beside the point of everything that I’m eager for the readings of “Flight’’ that interpret her as a figment of Whip’s imagination.
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.