The first five minutes of "Flight" play as if director Robert Zemeckis, the wizard of PG-13 mainstream fare like "Forrest Gump" and the "Back to the Future" trilogy, wants to underscore the R-rating on this, perhaps his darkest film to date. We see that Denzel Washington is trying to pry himself out of bed with an open beer and a line of coke, while arguing with his ex-wife by phone, all while a topless/bottomless Nadine Velazquez gets ready for the day. They're in a hotel room post-binge, and are steadying themselves before work — taking a commercial flight from Orlando to Atlanta through a severe storm. He's the captain and she's an attendant. You don't know whether to laugh or to cringe.
Along the way, as it would happen, something goes wrong with the flight, not long after Washington's pilot, Whip Whitaker, has helped himself to yet more booze, from the galley. The plane, for all appearances, is lost. A hundred people are going to die. But Whitaker proves to be as brilliant a pilot as he is functional as an alcoholic. He sets the airliner down in a field — a hard landing for sure, but a soft crash, and with only a few fatalities, he's a hero.
When he awakes in the hospital, a federal crash investigation has already begun. Blood has been drawn and analyzed. And it's here that "Flight" pivots from a story of unlikely heroism to one of abysmal addiction. Whip's life outside the cockpit was a mess already, and it gets worse. He meets a recovering addict named Nicole (Kelly Reilly, the picture of sunken-eyed redheaded Southern hard living) who tries to straighten Whip out as the feds and the media circle him. Both his attorney Don Cheadle and his union rep Bruce Greenwood try to convey the gravity of his drinking: Continue, and it could mean prison.
But Whip's relationship with the bottle endures. Maybe not since Nicolas Cage won an Academy Award for two hours of guzzling vodka in "Leaving Las Vegas" has a star imbibed more than Washington does in "Flight." As the grieving pilot drinking to escape, Washington's strengths are all on display: an ineffable charm and a self-immolating rage, separated by a scant membrane of feigned sobriety and bald lies. If Hollywood is fairly criticized for glamorizing drinking, or smoking, or drug use, or sex with celebrities, or whatever else monkeys see and then proceed to do, then let "Flight" join the pantheon of films that tack hard against the trend. After you stand up from this one, you'll never want to so much as see a beer again.
Where "Flight" wavers is in its tone. Its religious themes are clunky. The soundtrack, a collage of classic R&B and '60s rock, makes the cocaine pep all the more visceral but veers toward the feel-good when everything else points to feeling bad. (The choice of a certain Beatles track as elevator music after a key scene of illicit drug use, for one, comes across as a shade self-indulgent.) John Goodman's appearance as a friend and dealer hits most of the right notes — but similarly feels like comic relief at moments that could stand a somber touch. It'll land either as cathartic gallows humor or a flat attempt to be all things to all people.
This is how you can tell "Flight" is a Zemeckis movie: For as deep as it plunges into a complex disease, it doesn't stray far from what audiences (and Oscar voters) will find comforting. He wants to have it both ways, making a gripping, realistic film about addiction, telegraphing his supposed grit, and yet remaining palatable for multiplexes. Even if the film arrives, smoking and damaged, at a place of pat redemption, "Flight" at least has the gall to venture into the shadows of alcoholism. It's far from perfect, but it'll probably be named a Best Picture nominee in a few months, for good reason.