Addiction has been the subject of many movies but none has been as straightforward, honest, and unblinking about addiction as Flight. It is the best movie on the subject to make it to the big screen. Most movies about addiction are stylized, dreary, repetitive, and fetishize drug use without offering any insight. The beauty of Flight is that at no point does it glamorize alcohol and drug abuse yet it doesn’t paint addicts as those on the fringes of everyday life.

Society often dismisses alcoholics and drug addicts as losers on the bottom rung of the ladder but the reality is that they are our neighbors, co-workers, family members and in the case of Flight, an experienced and accomplished top notch airline pilot. Denzel Washington is Captain Whip Whitaker who manages to make a spectacular emergency landing after the plane he is flying experiences engine failure.

The fact that Whip has the ability to land the plane with a minimal loss of life despite being physically impaired by drugs and alcohol further drives home the point that a person can be high functioning and a complete mess at the same time. The contradictory circumstances force you to see Whip as a three-dimensional individual who is extremely talented and likable while at the same time arrogant, flawed and broken.

Whip is immediately deemed a hero after the crash but he, the pilot’s union and the airline know that although that may be true he was also literally flying high. Don Cheadle is excellent as a lawyer assigned to represent Whip and the airlines’ interests and who like Whip is the best at what he does. He recognizes Whip’s failures as a human being yet admires and respects the incredible skill that allowed Whip to save so many lives. Whether he will be able to do the same for  Whip and get him through hearings with the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) in one piece is a central question of the film.

Denzel Washington gives his most immediate, raw, and real performance in years and his Oscar nomination was well deserved. You can see him throughout internally rationalizing and manipulating the way addicts do all the time. John Goodman is hilarious as Whip’s drug dealer who makes house calls and probably knows more about Whip than anyone else.

Kelly Reilly as Nicole, a fellow lost soul Whip meets while recovering at the hospital after the crash is achingly authentic and vulnerable as a recovering addict who can barely contain herself in her own skin but knows that going back to drugs would be a death sentence.

Addiction is harrowing, destructive and potentially deadly. There are no easy answers or clear paths to redemption or recovery and Flight doesn’t offer any. What it does offer is a portrait of one man’s struggle with a force that may be more powerful than him and how he finally has no option left but to confront it head on.

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