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Audiences buckle up for one kind of movie but end up strapped in for another in director Robert Zemeckis' welcome return to live-action after a dozen years away.

Whip Whitaker - Denzel Washington
Hugh Lang - Don Cheadle
Nicole - Kelly Reilly
Harling Mays - John Goodman
Charlie Anderson - Bruce Greenwood
Ken Evans - Brian Geraghty
Margaret Thomason - Tamar Tunie

Audiences buckle up for one kind of movie but end up strapped in for another in “Flight,” director Robert Zemeckis’ welcome return to live-action after a dozen years away. Serious-minded drama steers a horrifying nightmare at 20,000 feet into one man’s turbulent personal struggle with his drinking problem — and not in the jokey “Airplane!” sense, either. Denzel Washington is aces as a commercial airline pilot who pulls off a miraculous mid-air stunt while flying with a 0.24 blood alcohol concentration, only to face his demons on the ground. Pic should soar on all platforms — except in-flight, of course.

For most alcoholics, crash-landing a jetliner would qualify as rock bottom — reason enough to quit drinking and seek help. In the case of Capt. Whip Whitaker (Washington), however, it’s just the beginning of a battle in which his greatest adversary is himself. Though technically an ensemble piece, “Flight” is as much a one-man showcase as Zemeckis’ “Cast Away” was for Tom Hanks.

Back in the land of the living, after a run of performance-capture pictures including “The Polar Express” and “Beowulf,” the helmer has embraced a project that depends entirely on the power of the human face — an assignment for which Washington is the perfect co-pilot. Internalizing the angry flame he typically displays onscreen, the star undercuts his own trademark swagger with the suggestion that, for some, such cocky behavior could mask far deeper problems.

Whitaker is flying high, sleeping with a comely stewardess (Nadine Velazquez) and chasing away his morning hangovers with a line of cocaine before stepping into the cockpit, until a mechanical malfunction sends his plane into a nosedive. Judging by the cool and collected way Whitaker handles the situation, he could be the poster boy for high-functioning alcoholism. Attempting to re-create the same scenario on a simulator after the fact, no other pilot could pull off the same maneuver. And yet, had Whitaker not literally been asleep at the wheel when the plane pitched forward, maybe the entire situation could have been avoided, sparing the six lives lost in his stunning recovery move.

Few events are more visceral to experience onscreen than an airplane crash, and “Flight” ranks alongside “Fearless” and “Alive” in the sheer intensity of its opening act. But John Gatins’ perceptively original script takes the rest of the story in a far different direction. For the first week or so, Whitaker vows to get sober, raiding every hiding place in his grandfather’s Georgia cabin for stashed liquor bottles and pouring them down the drain. It’s a symbolic gesture, but one that ultimately represents little more than wasted money for a man so hooked on hooch that within a few scenes, he’s sucking down Stoli vodka straight from its half-gallon jug (while driving, no less).

Enter a number of concerned supporting characters — figures essential to Whitaker’s journey and yet dwarfed by the dominant attention Zemeckis pays his deeply conflicted protag, through whose eyes we experience all but an early digressive scene setting up Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a lovely yet self-destructive masseuse. Nicole stands the best chance of getting through to Whitaker, though trying to save a fellow addict could backfire. It doesn’t help that Whitaker’s dealer (John Goodman, channeling “The Big Lebowski’s” laid-back Dude) repeatedly swoops in with fresh supplies.

Whitaker’s near-constant, never-glamorous state of intoxication has long since alienated him from his ex-wife (Garcelle Beauvais) and estranged son (Justin Martin, who leaves a strong impression in two scenes). The only other friend in his corner is old service buddy Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood), now a rep for the pilots’ union, who’s put in the tricky position of wanting to remain loyal to Whitaker even as blood tests reveal criminal levels of intoxication.

While Whitaker works through his personal issues, an imposing investigation into the crash looms. As corrupt back-room negotiations build to a hearing, overseen by a no-nonsense Melissa Leo, in which Whitaker can all too easily lie his way off the hook — assuming he can stay sober long enough to get through it. (Looks like he picked the wrong week to stop drinking.)

The procedural mechanics matter less to Zemeckis than what Whitaker is experiencing at any given moment, evidenced by the way Don Burgess’ elegant live-action lensing never feels detached from the character. By this point in the story, even those who’ve fully identified with Washington’s prickly yet impressively accessible performance can’t help but view him as some kind of monster, albeit a tragic one. Everything, from the tormented look in Washington’s eyes to the empathetic strains of Alan Silvestri’s score, begs for Whitaker to redeem himself in that moment, and yet, Gatins has written such a captivatingly compromised antihero, this final moment of truth plays as gripping as the airplane disaster that started things off.

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Production: A Paramount release and presentation of an Imagemovers, Parkes/MacDonald production. Produced by Walter F. Parkes, Laurie MacDonald, Steve Starkey, Robert Zemeckis, Jack Rapke. Executive producer, Cherylanne Martin. Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Screenplay, John Gatins.

Crew: Camera (Deluxe color, widescreen), Don Burgess; editor, Jeremiah O'Driscoll; music, Alan Silvestri; production designer, Nelson Coates; art director, David Lazan; set decorator, James Edward Ferrell; costume designer, Louise Frogley; sound (Datasat/Dolby Digital), William B. Kaplan; sound designer, Randy Thom; supervising sound editor, Dennis Leonard; re-recording mixers, Thom, Leonard, Dennis Sands; special effects supervisor, Michael Lantieri; visual effects supervisor, Kevin Baillie; visual effects, Atomic Fiction; stunt coordinator, Charlie Croughwell; associate producer, Heather Kelton; assistant director, Dana J. Kuznetzkoff; second unit director, Steve Starkey; casting, Victoria Burrows, Scot Boland. Reviewed at Paramount Studios, Los Angeles, Oct. 11, 2012. (In New York Film Festival -- closer.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 138 MIN.

Cast: Whip Whitaker - Denzel Washington
Hugh Lang - Don Cheadle
Nicole - Kelly Reilly
Harling Mays - John Goodman
Charlie Anderson - Bruce Greenwood
Ken Evans - Brian Geraghty
Margaret Thomason - Tamar Tunie
With: Nadine Velazquez, Peter Gerety, Garcelle Beauvais, Justin Martin, Melissa Leo.

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