Denzel Washington's character in ''Flight'' is a lot like Chelsey ''Sully'' Sullenberger that is, if Sullenberger's blood alcohol had been three times the legal limit when he safely landed that commercial airplane in the Hudson River in 2009.
But don't worry about Washington's Whip Whitaker. He also did a couple lines of cocaine to even himself out.
For his first live action film in a dozen years, Robert Zemeckis takes ''Flight'' in some unexpected directions. In spite of the protagonist's impaired state, Whip largely avoids tragedy and pulls off a maneuver every bit as heroic as Sully's. Four passengers and two crew members die on the flight carrying 102 passengers, but when 10 top pilots tried to duplicate the scenario in a simulator, everyone died.
In many ways, Whip is the kind of rule-breaking rebel that Hollywood has celebrated for decades.
Zemeckis won Best Director for ''Forrest Gump,'' which also won Best Picture for 1994, but the movie has its share of detractors who see it as dismissive and reductive of the '60s counterculture. Here Zemeckis and screenwriter John Gatins take aim at another counterculture icon - the antihero.
''Flight'' opens with Whip hung over and in bed with a beautiful, naked woman (Nadine Velazquez). He tries to defog his head by draining the last swallow from one of last night's beer bottles. This could be the opening scene in any movie Nick Nolte made in the first half of his career, and it puts Whip in the same category as the doctors in ''M*A*S*H'' (particularly the movie version), who tended to their still with the same care they tended to their patients and still were superior surgeons compared to their by-the-book co-workers.
STARS: Denzel Washington, Kathy Reilly, Bruce Greenwood, Don Cheadle, John Goodman, Tamara Tunie and Nadine Velazquez
STORYLINE: A pilot executes a heroic landing, but his own demons have him heading for a crash
DIRECTOR: Robert Zemeckis
RATING: R for drug and alcohol abuse, language, sexuality / nudity and an intense action sequence.
But there's no room for ''anti'' before hero in this ''Flight'' plan, so Whip is going to take a beating until he takes responsibility for his behavior, even if it's largely self-flagellation.
There are few actors who could pull off this complex character as well as Washington. The movie trades on the good will he's built up from his body of work. For those already squeamish about flying, ''Flight'' piles their every fear into the first half hour, including an aircraft plummet as harrowing and intense as has ever been captured on screen.
After that set up, though, ''Flight'' is a 12-step movie focusing on a character fighting that first step with all he has. All Whip has to do to walk away unscathed from this mishap is stay sober for a few weeks. He's got a good lawyer (Don Cheadle) and a loyal union rep (Bruce Greenwood) in his corner, an ex-junkie girlfriend (Kelly Reilly) who is setting a strong example and friends (Tamara Tunie) trying to lead him toward a righteous path.
Washington shows just how tight alcohol's grip is on Whip. He resists temptation for a while, but those old triggers return and the threats of lawsuits and possible imprisonment can't stop him from drinking, just as the collapse of his marriage and his estrangement from his son didn't.
The movie argues that the choice to change must come from within. Those supporters also are enablers, and fate and faith ultimately intervene to make Whip have to decide for himself whether to drink or not. For those who complain about the lack of faith in most Hollywood products, ''Flight'' takes religion more seriously than any movie not starring Kirk Cameron.
That also means it's a much more somber movie than the one the commercials (those spots that emphasize the plane crash and hint at conspiracies) are selling. And at 140 minutes, the pacing gets a little slack in the second half.
''Flight'' would be more effective if its climax weren't so contrived. It creates a false choice for Whip that isn't plausible or at least would be avoidable. It's as if Gatins and Zemeckis got themselves trapped in a narrative corner and took the easy way out.
It makes for a movie that is more memorable for its performances - Reilly's fragile junkie, John Goodman's gonzo turn as Whip's pharmaceutical-procuring neighbor and Washington's Oscar bait lead - and that amazing flight sequence than it is for its destination.