Despite its dazzling crash sequence, "Flight" is not an air-disaster tale; it's a film about alcoholism - one of the best ever made on that subject.
In this latest from director Robert Zemeckis ("Forrest Gump," "Back to the Future"), Denzel Washington plays commercial pilot "Whip" Whitaker, a capable captain who just happens to be a substance abuser.
Even while flying.
Like many alcoholics, Whip functions so well bombed that when one of his planes breaks down and plunges into a nosedive, he miraculously saves nearly every soul on board.
But the investigators' policy of drawing blood from the crew forces Whip to grapple with his addiction.
Well, it should force him to; but Whip seems helplessly ensnared - not moved even by Nicole, a fellow-addict who urges him to attend AA with her.
The actress in that role is Kelly Reilly - and amidst a planeload of fine performances, hers deserves particular attention.
Reilly is the redhead best known for playing Watson's gal-pal in the two recent Sherlock Holmes films.
Here, her mixture of desperation, kindness, vulnerability and strength is absolutely mesmerizing; I'll bet her agent's phone is already ringing off the hook.
Washington is superb. His manly confidence and skill in the cockpit is extremely engaging; it's horrifying to watch such a fine man give in to his demons again and again.
Other strong performances: Don Cheadle as Whip's lawyer, Bruce Greenwood as a union rep and John Goodman as a party-boy with a bottle-opener mounted on his dashboard. But all three of these "friends" fail Whip in his hour of greatest need, willing to sacrifice his recovery for their own agendas.
At some points you may want to give up on this film, sensing the hopeless despair found in other tales about alcoholics; but stick with it. Writer John Gatins, himself a recovering drinker, knows exactly where he's going, and the ending of this aptly titled "Flight" could hardly be better.
Gatins' script carries a subtle but clear theme suggesting that God is in control even through temptation and disaster - an idea articulated early by a cancer patient (another fine performance) and later by an overzealous couple.
This latter pair borders on caricature - but that somehow makes their expression of the theme more poignant than a softer, warmer approach; it's one more way God is seen to be working through human failure and weakness.
I desperately wanted to give four stars to this spellbinding film; but I found the opening nudity gratuitous, and the exchange on the porn-movie set will offend some viewers - though that does show Nicole's willingness to draw a line in her admittedly degraded lifestyle.
I was amazed at how firmly Whip's struggle imbedded itself in my psyche, and how the film's emotions kept stirring deep within me throughout the next day.
Washington, Reilly and Goodman deserve the Oscar noms they'll probably get.
Let's hope Gatins receives one too.
***1/2 (out of four)
The film is rated R for nudity, substance abuse and strong language.