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Flight marks the second time director Robert Zemeckis has given us the vicarious experience of being on an airplane headed for disaster, the first being Cast Away. It’s superior moviemaking, and powerfully emotional, but despite that hair-raising first act, Flight is neither an action film nor a special-effects showcase: it’s a portrait of addiction.

Casting Denzel Washington as an airline pilot who performs heroically under stress in the air—but can’t control himself on the ground—was a master stroke. We’re accustomed to seeing this commanding actor project qualities like determination and strength of character. Watching him play a man facing a moral dilemma, while denying his underlying problem, resonates more than it might have with a less imposing actor in the part.

The characters and subplots that surround Washington all make sense, too: a chance hospital meeting with a woman (Kelly Reilly) who’s trying to kick a drug habit, a tense dynamic between the pilot and his union representative (Bruce Greenwood) and the lawyer (Don Cheadle) who’s handling his case, and a brotherly relationship with a good ol’ boy (John Goodman) who happily supplies Washington with whatever he needs in times of crisis, be it drugs, booze, or a change of clothing. Brian Geraghty, Tamara Tunie, and Melissa Leo also make significant contributions to the picture.

It’s nice to see Zemeckis back in top form after a decade of noodling in the mostly-unrewarding world of motion-capture production (The Polar Express, Beowulf, A Christmas Carol). He has chosen to tell this serious story at an unhurried pace, which may trouble some moviegoers but didn’t bother me in the slightest. I was completely caught up in Washington’s crisis of conscience and savored all the nuances of John Gatins’ thoughtful screenplay.

In fact, it’s refreshing to find a major studio movie, with an A-list star, that is unabashedly adult in its orientation. I only wish it happened more often.

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