Flight (2012), directed by Robert Zemeckis

Flight is not the film that I was expecting to see.

After many years on the fence I now consider myself to be a Denzel fan and I went to see him make some impassioned speeches and maybe take someone down a peg or two. Turns out he’s still got a few tricks left in his bag and this might reasonably be considered one of the best performances of the year.

With Robert Zemeckis directing his first live-action feature since 2000′s Cast Away I also expected a sentimental, sickly-sweet Hollywood movie that would likely be pleasant to watch but little more. That’s sort of Zemeckis’ thing (although, I must admit I love Contact).

But then within the first, oh let’s say, five minutes of the film we have nudity, f-bombs and Denzel doing a line of coke off a bedside table.

This ain’t no Forrest Gump.

Flight is a wonderfully morally ambiguous movie that despite it’s very personal subject matter, namely addiction, manages to also be an enthralling Hollywood movie, thanks to the encapsulating plot line of a plane crash.

The opening crash sequence, which is significant, is one hell of a white-knuckle, edge-of-seat scene that rivals Zemeckis’ own plane-crash sequence from Cast Away, which was also terrifying. It’s a great bit of movie-making.

But once the dust settles the film switches gears in surprising and delightful ways. The trailer makes it look like the film will be a dramatic courtroom type affair, and at times it is, but at the centre of it all is Denzel’s Whip, a tortured, troubled man trying to lie his way through his alcoholism and keep the tatters of his life pinned together.

His role in the crash is never questioned. He saved nearly everyone’s life on board. But he was also drunk and high while flying the plane, and is drunk or high most of the time. After the crash he tries to quit, to sober up, but keeps falling into old habits and choosing the safety of a bottle over the hardships of making amends for mistakes and carving out a meaningful life.

It’s a portrayal that must have taken Washington out of his comfort zone. We’re not used to seeing vulnerable Denzel. We’re used to him ranting at younger characters and showing them how things are done. In this film his character is utterly lost. And Washington nails it with depth and sensitivity.

I feel like this is Zemeckis outside of his comfort zone too. He’s done a lot of family-friendly fare and even his adult movies are typically pretty squeaky clean. This movie is no howl from the gutter, but it tackles adult issues, and not ones that deserve any sort of sugarcoating. Well, there’s no sugarcoating here and Zemeckis almost comes out with something “gritty.” And he handles it well.

The only complaint I would have with this film is John Goodman’s character Harling Mays. The rest of the film does a great job of not making addiction seem “cool,” but Harling is a Rolling Stones-soundtracked, fast talking dealer that is meant as some comic relief in this otherwise heavy film. It works, he is funny and lightens things up, but he stuck out like a sore thumb in a movie generally denouncing addiction and drug use.

Aside from that, Flight is a harrowing, deeply moving film. I was shocked to realize it’s well over two-hours long, it (excuse the pun) flies by. To make a film essentially about one man and his personal struggles this engrossing takes immense talent from everyone involved. They nailed it.

Flight is in cinemas now.