Maybe you've heard the joke about the religious man who tried to escape a flood by climbing on his roof and praying for God to save him.
A man with a canoe comes by and offers assistance, but the homeowner says no thanks, "God will save me!"
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"Flight"★ ★ ★ ½
Starring: Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood, John Goodman, Nadine Velazquez
Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
Other: A Paramount Pictures release. Rated R for substance abuse, language, nudity, sexual situations. 93 minutes
A motorboat and a helicopter come by, but he tells them the same thing.
So the man drowns, goes to heaven and he angrily confronts God.
"I prayed for you to save me and you let me drown!" he shouts.
"I sent you a canoe, a motorboat and a helicopter," God replies. "What more did you want?"
This joke constitutes the essence of Robert Zemeckis' bold and excellent drama "Flight," which leads us into thinking that the story centers around an airline catastrophe prevented by a heroic pilot, despite the fact he had a couple of drinks before the flight.
If you listen carefully, John Gatins' screenplay is riddled with references to God, many of them delivered by Denzel Washington's airline pilot, Whip Whitaker, who has, charitably, a contentious relationship with the Almighty.
Whitaker hasn't exactly been a paragon of godly values. His drinking and coke problem forced his wife to divorce him. His son disowns him as a drunkard and womanizer. Whitaker takes comfort in two things: booze and a knock-dead gorgeous member of the flight crew Katerina (Nadine Velazquez) with whom he has an ongoing affair during layovers.
They prepare for their next flight. Just before slipping into the cockpit, Whitaker downs two single-serving bottles of booze for the road and practically falls asleep in his chair.
A storm rocks the airliner as it climbs to a safe altitude. Without warning, the jet drops into free fall. Through this white-knuckle plunge to certain death, Whitaker keeps his wits, never panics and saves the plane by thinking outside of the vortex.
He inverts the jet, flying it upside down to keep it aloft long enough to make it to an open field -- next to a Pentecostal church. (Symbolism alert!)
The harrowing crash sequence is Zemeckis' magnificent show piece in "Flight," a spectacular collision of special effects, high drama and conflicting human emotions.
Afterward, "Flight" does something courageous and unexpected. It alters course.
It diverts from "Airport" and dives into "Days of Wine and Roses," a searing personal story about a man's struggle to overcome his addictions, subdue his inner demons and recover his damaged soul.
The question I kept coming back to was: Could the jet's equipment failure be God's canoe to Whitaker? The pilot continues to inexplicably get more chances to save himself.
The pilots' union rep (Bruce Greenwood) and his sharp attorney (Don Cheadle) quash the drug test proving Whitaker was loaded with coke and alcohol. (Could this be the motorboat?)
On it goes, with Whitaker passing up on metaphorical helicopters, rafts and life preservers, until, finally, Whitaker bottoms out, as many alcoholics do. At least the lucky ones.
"Flight" represents more than an entertaining movie. It's a subversive ethics exercise that insidiously aligns us with Washington's sympathetic villain. Then, it adds layer after layer of banal evil to test us, to see just how far we, as audience members, will go to stay on Whitaker's side.
John Goodman nearly ventures into caricature as Whitaker's supplier, the brash and overly cocky Harling Mays. The always amazing Melissa Leo is almost wasted in a small role as the official in charge of a final hearing that will either send Whitaker to jail for manslaughter, or hail him as a national hero.
Like Zemeckis' "Cast Away" with Tom Hanks, "Flight" depends on the main actor to carry the weight of the film.
Washington manages that with deceptive ease, becoming a clear window into a lost man's soul and creating an amazingly graceful performance illustrating what can happen to a good heart when coagulated by bad judgments, all enabled by addiction.