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REVIEW: Flight
REVIEW: Flight

I have seen Flight twice now and can't stop thinking about its gripping final scene. It's a hearing into the crash of a commercial flight and an icy investigator (Melissa Leo) is questioning the pilot (Denzel Washington) about his toxicology results.

I won't spoil it for you, of course, but I now think this sharp conclusion - which ends on a bit of a bombshell - jars with everything that's come before it. It's as if the studio demanded a happy ending even if the rest of the film was heading south.

You'll know it when you see it, and I hope you do, because Flight is a first-class drama with two major Hollywood players - director Robert Zemeckis and star Denzel Washington - back in form after years of mostly average work.

Washington's captain Whip Whitaker is a real piece of work. He's an ice-cool commercial airline pilot who likes flying high.

And by high, I'm not talking altitude. I'm talking high on booze and coke.

After another all-night bender, he pilots a routine flight to Atlanta with 102 souls aboard. Clearly, Whip's done this before, and is good at hiding his secret. In a telling and deftly shot scene, he uses one hand to hold the PA to address the passengers while his other one secretly pours two tiny bottles of vodka into orange juice.

During the flight, Whip wakes to a loud bang - mechanical failure. The plane nose-dives. It's going to crash. Panic erupts. But Whip is cool, calm and commanding under pressure.

He performs a daredevil manoeuvre, flipping the jumbo jet upside down. It's a sickening tour de force sequence. He rights it, glides and crash-lands in a field. Only six die in the accident. Whip is hailed a national hero.

But is he really a hero if he was so loaded? That's the tricky moral question at the heart of Flight, which starts - and truly soars - as an airline crash disaster film but levels off to a more intimate look at hero worship and addiction.

Indeed, Zemeckis diverts from the question of whether a criminal can be a hero in that second half as a union buddy (Bruce Greenwood) hires a cynical lawyer (Don Cheadle) to keep the damning results of Whip's toxicology test secret.

And he steers Flight toward a more intimate character study as Whip hides from the limelight, shacks up with a junkie (Kelly Reilly) and dives back into the bottle.

In that sense, Flight is more about a man in a faster freefall than that plane.

Zemeckis could have pushed Flight into full throttle by having Whip exposed as a drunk early on, to see if anyone cares given his heroic acts (tests prove all other pilots would have killed everyone on board).

That seems to short-change Flight as a challenging moral dilemma film.

On the other hand, it allows Washington to shine as a challenging character; a Robin Hood-style hero-villain we both praise and pity, admire and abhor.

Washington plays it perfectly in his meatiest role in years, finding that fine line between hero and villain right up until that gripping - but tonally jarring - final scene.

Still, this is your third and final call for Flight. It's both a turbulent, nerve-racking thriller and a provocative, contentious human drama. You'll talk about it for days. Just don't see it on a plane.