For anyone who has been clamoring for Robert Zemeckis‘s return to live-action, Flight should appease those fans of the director who haven’t embraced his recent motion-capture adventures. This isn’t exactly a triumphant comeback, but with Flight he mostly knows what buttons to push in order to please.

It’s a true testament to Denzel Washington‘s performance that the blunt drama doesn’t fall on its face. Washington has major obstacles to overcome in making the character of Whip Whitaker as empathetic as he is. From frame one, Zemeckis and screenwriter John Gatins unflatteringly show us who this guy is: a bad father, an alcoholic, a coke addict. There is nothing to admire about him, not even his surface level charms, which are best showcased in scenes between Washington and John Goodman.

The morning we’re introduced to the drunk and sleepless Whip, he pilots a plane with the full awareness that he’s intoxicated. Unfortunately, the plane hits a major storm, and a terrible malfunction occurs. Whip has to conjure up a miracle, and through some spectacular maneuvering he saves the lives of 97 people. He’s called a hero by the press, but if news breaks that he was under the influence during the crash, he could face up to life in jail.

But there’s more to the story than that, including a “romance” between Whip and a former drug addict named Nicole (Kelly Reilly). When Flight is dealing with the core conflict — the crash and Whip’s family and alcohol troubles — Flight is high-caliber drama. Having a character like Nicole hijack the second act makes for the film’s gravest misstep. Thematically the character serves a purpose, but that’s the sole reason for her role. She’s not a character but a symbol, an unnecessary one, too, when there’s already enough conflicts at hand.

Zemeckis doesn’t downplay Whip’s circumstances for much of the film. Although the famed director is usually all about striving for an upbeat and populist sensibility, Flight is new territory for him. Zemeckis never sugarcoats Whip, and when the character awakes from a hangover, Zemeckis makes Washington’s appearance completely unappealing.

There’s an edge not seen frequently from the Back to the Future director, but that doesn’t mean he has left behind his blockbuster ways this time around. The heavily advertised crash sequence is thrilling. It’s as intense as the one in Cast Away but stands on its own. Every precise shot and passenger’s scream builds tension. There aren’t many more popcorn moments in that vein for the rest of the film, but when the tone allows for it Zemeckis has fun with Whipper, the camerawork, and some comedic moments.

By the end, it’s made even clearer that Zemeckis has used everything in his arsenal to pull at the heart strings. The bizarre thing is, even when the film dips into sappiness, it works. A large portion of the movie is on-the-nose but almost always effective. Zemeckis has enough control as a filmmaker to overshadow Flight‘s structural problems, thus making the film both crowd-pleasing and emotionally involving.

The Upside: Washington’s performance has awards potential all over it. John Goodman comes in at the right moments to lighten the mood. A compelling conflict, which can be about as thrilling as the plane crash.

The Downside: The trite direction of Whip and Nicole’s relationship, making for a bloated second act. There is a tonally awkward scene between Washington and Brian Geraghty employing the line “praise Jesus” one too many times. The last ten minutes almost bites off more than it can chew with a major thematic question.

On The Side: This is only Robert Zemeckis’s second R-rated movie.

Grade: B

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