Robert Zemeckis and Denzel Washington on the set of "Flight."
Robert Zemeckis and Denzel Washington on the set of "Flight."

Using mainly close-ups and a somersaulting camera, Zemeckis constructs as tense a crash sequence as the big screen has ever displayed. Frontloaded with the power of this brilliantly suspenseful moment, "Flight" speeds into a prolonged story of its fallout: While hiding from the public eye, Whip deals with inquiries into his private life while forming a relationship with alienated junkie he meets at the Atlanta hospital where he recovers from the crash. Their ensuing drama has a tacked-on quality that never fully syncs with the rest of the material, although it's among several ingredients used to expand on Whip's alcohol problems and the perilous hubris involved in his ongoing attempts to disguise them.

As the institutional interest in his life heats up, Whip gets increasingly candid with the muted lawyer (Don Cheadle) tasked with keeping him out of jail; John Goodman surfaces in a couple of scenes as a hilarious fixer able to keep Whip comfortably shrouded from media scrutiny. Gatis' sharp screenplay nimbly juggles these various characters by foregrounding Whip's undulating problems with addiction. Zemeckis moves the proceedings along by relying on calculated music cues ranging from the Rolling Stones to the Red Hot Chili Peppers (as well as recurring use of Traffic's "Feelin' Alright," the de facto theme song) in addition to Washington's evident commitment to the material.

The movie is notably not about the crash but rather the transformative power of a single cataclysmic event. For obvious reasons, "Flight" has post-9/11 demons in its DNA, but reflects the temperament of the current era to make peace with darkness and soldier forward to a better tomorrow. That's an undeniably cheeky takeaway rendered in somewhat distractingly obvious terms with an overly familiar tell-all monologue in its concluding moments. But there's nevertheless a welcome form of comfort that can be derived from its blatant sentimentalism. Viewed in the context of the festival, "Flight" epitomizes a dogged willingness to convey hope for the future while acknowledging the possibility of more dark days ahead. It's a good way to go out.

Criticwire grade: B+

HOW WILL IT PLAY? Paramount opens "Flight" on November 2, right in the heat of Oscar season, where it's a definitive candidate for several major prizes -- particularly for Washington's performance and Gatis' screenplay. It should satisfy audiences in search of top-caliber studio fare during the fall season and perform decently during its initial weeks of release.