Denzel Washington soars in inconsistent ‘Flight’

In “Flight,” director Robert Zemeckis and star Denzel Washington, Oscar winners both, have bigger fish to fry than simply pulling off a sensational plane-crash sequence. The movie’s about honesty, self-destruction, maybe even the nature of the universe.

But about that plane crash: Hoo, boy, is that a knockout.

It reminds you of what a talented technician Zemeckis can be, and that it’s good to have him back in the cockpit after laboring to make the motion-capture style of animation work in a string of movies (including “The Polar Express” and “A Christmas Carol”).

Washington plays a talented but alcoholic pilot named Whip Whitaker, who manages a miraculous landing when a passenger plane begins to fail during a routine hop from Orlando to Atlanta.

His system’s awash with booze and drugs, but his instincts find a brilliant solution to the imminent disaster.

That happens in the first half-hour of the picture, and the flying sequence is an absolute barn-burner — so good it guarantees this movie will never be shown on an airplane. The remainder of the film follows the investigation of the crash. The pilot is hailed as a hero, but the toxicology report has a different story.

“Flight,” written by John Gatins, is a nicely serious movie with grown-up concerns. Zemeckis even lets some scenes go on for more than two minutes, which is a rarity these days.

I wanted to like “Flight” more than I did, but it keeps wriggling away from its strengths. Having established the gravity of the situation, Zemeckis periodically interrupts the proceedings with appearances by Whip’s old buddy (John Goodman, in “Lebowski” mode), whose promotion of various substances is played as comedy, despite the message of the rest of the movie.

And it’s hard to deny that Zemeckis is much better at the tech stuff than the human-interest material. His ability to whip up hard-edged excitement looks heavy-handed when applied to simple scenes, and his reliance on baby-boomer rock songs ought to have stopped in the days of “Forrest Gump.”

That’s frustrating, because quite a bit of “Flight” is compelling. A meeting between three lost souls in a hospital stairwell (this is where Whip meets his quasi-love interest, played by Kelly Reilly) is elegantly orchestrated, and any time Don Cheadle shows up as Whip’s conniving attorney, the movie’s energy level goes up a notch.

Washington also makes this worth a look. He’s forceful as expected, but also taps the character’s lostness, never better than when describing a faraway flight to Jamaica that represents a rare moment of clarity for him.

In its first half, “Flight” looks like an intriguing study of how and why people tell lies at an official level, lies that will affect many other people. That’s a big subject for our times.

When the movie narrows to Whip’s battle with the bottle, it turns into yet another film about alcoholism, and the opportunity for a bigger subject falls to earth.

“Flight” (2½ stars)

Denzel Washington is excellent as a boozing pilot who brilliantly saves a passenger plane from certain destruction, then scrambles to explain his toxicology report. Director Robert Zemeckis is reaching for a big statement here (and the crash sequence is incredible), but the film is clumsy in execution and it eventually narrows to just another story about alcoholism.

Rated: R for nudity, language, subject matter.

Showing: Alderwood Mall, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Pacific Place, Thornton Place, Woodinville, Cascade.

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