Denzel Washington has perfected playing imperfect men.
In movie after movie -- think 'Philadelphia'; 'Man on Fire' and 'American Gangster' -- he burrows inside men who are often at war with themselves, their consciences out of sync, at least initially, with their words or actions.
In his latest film, 'Flight', he puts those contradictions front and center and gives one of the great performances of an already impressive career.
In the drama’s opening scene, Whip Whitaker (Washington) wakes up with a hangover when the clock radio in his hotel room goes off at 7 am. He’s in a rumpled bed alongside a luscious naked woman after what clearly has been a night of debauchery. He drains the final drops from last night’s beer, takes a toke from a joint the woman has lit, answers a phone call from his ex-wife and tells her he’s on a 9 am flight back from Orlando to Atlanta that morning, and then snorts a line of coke.
Cut to Whitaker, now looking sharp and full of swagger, leaving the hotel room dressed as a pilot. Whoa, this guy has no business handling the controls of a plane this morning.
But Whitaker does climb into the cockpit and, in a bravura sequence for both his character and the movie, successfully makes a tricky emergency landing after the plane suffers a debilitating mechanical failure. He is hailed as a hero.
So, is he a hero or a drunk or both?
'Flight' spends the rest of the movie answering that question or, more accurately, letting Whitaker stumble slowly and painfully toward an answer he can live with. The movie, directed by Robert Zemeckis ('Cast Away') and written by John Gatins ('Real Steel'), is primarily a character study, an absorbing examination of how many ways a man can lie to himself, run from the truth, and try to take flight from facing himself and what he needs to do.
'Flight' feels as if it’s several scenes too long and sometimes the script pounds home points with a hammer when a lighter touch would have sufficed. A few of the movie’s various subplots feel tacked on (Whitaker becoming involved with a frail ex-junkie, touchingly played by Kelly Reilly) while others serve primarily to generate mild suspense (will Whitaker’s lawyer, played by the always dependable Don Cheadle, be able to quash the results of the pilot’s post-flight toxicology test).
But 'Flight' is that rara avis, a Hollywood film aimed squarely at grownups, with a flawed, contradictory protagonist at its center. That it makes us care so much about what will happen to him says reams about Washington’s skill and talent for creating compelling, complicated characters.