This film image released by Paramount Pictures shows Bruce Greenwood portraying Charlie Anderson, left, and Denzel Washington portraying Whip Whitaker in a
This film image released by Paramount Pictures shows Bruce Greenwood portraying Charlie Anderson, left, and Denzel Washington portraying Whip Whitaker in a scene from "Flight." Washington plays an airline pilot who, despite being hung-over, drunk and coked-up, manages to bring down a rapidly deteriorating plane in a daring emergency landing on what should have been a routine flight between Orlando, Fla., and Atlanta. (AP Photo/Paramount Pictures, Robert Zuckerman)

Fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy -- and riveting -- "Flight."

It begins like a disaster movie, with a crash landing executed by a heroic pilot (Denzel Washington), who saves almost everyone on board. But a subsequent investigation reveals what we knew from the first image of him taking a morning swig of beer: Washington's character, Whip Whitaker, was drunk and coked up when he flew the damaged plane.

Assigning blame for the crash is one issue in "Flight," but the bigger issue is: Has Whitaker hit rock bottom and can he get his act together?

I like a flawed hero, and so does Washington, who has never been better than he is here. Because the crash shows us his character doing something no other pilot could have done, "Flight" establishes Whitaker as almost superheroic before it slowly reveals the extent of his problems. Washington's likability gets us in his corner, but his performance never courts our approval. His Whitaker is charming, which is why people keep covering up for him, but he is also rude, moody and difficult, and we quickly learn that his promises to get clean are not worth the Jameson labels they're written on.

A drama as complex as its subject, addiction, "Flight" begins with an intelligent script by John Gatins (who also wrote the underrated "Dreamer"). Gatins and director Robert Zemeckis use emotionally charged situations -- hospitalized after the crash, Whitaker strikes up a troubled friendship with another addict, Nicole (Kelly Reilly, outstanding) -- to drive the drama. The low-key "Flight" never feels forced, but it's almost like the characters are working against a ticking clock, because we know Whitaker is quickly running out of last chances, but it's not at all clear that he knows.

Zemeckis proceeds so logically and calmly that you might almost miss how many remarkable things are going on in "Flight." For instance, there aren't many big Hollywood movies in which the two leading roles are played by black men (Don Cheadle plays an attorney who defends Whitaker even as he's disgusted by him). I can't think of any movie that kicks off in one hugely satisfying direction, then shifts to another one and manages to make that even better. And I don't know of an actor other than Washington who could deliver the elliptical last line of "Flight" ("That's a good question.") so thoughtfully that it sends us out of the theater so curious and, yet, satisfied.

"FLIGHT"

Directed by: Robert Zemeckis

Starring: Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle, Kelly Reilly

Rated: R for very strong language, drug use, violence and partial nudity

Should you go? Yes. It's the kind of provocative, character-based drama Hollywood almost never makes anymore.
***-1/2

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