We've heard a lot about obnoxious passengers but very little about intoxicated pilots. That's why you're not likely to see this terrifying chronicle of an aviation disaster while flying on any carrier.

Charismatic "Whip" Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is a commercial pilot who not only carouses all night with a compliant flight attendant (Nadine Velazquez) but also snorts cocaine and fortifies himself with booze after takeoff. Nevertheless, he's so skilled that when his Jackson-Ridgefield 88 Passenger Jet, headed from Orlando to Atlanta, encounters extreme turbulence during a massive storm, he steers the plane into clearing sky. But then, inexplicably, the hydraulics system fails, along with other mechanical malfunctions, sending SouthJet flight 227 into a nosedive. Determined to regain control, Whip inverts the aircraft, ingeniously allowing it to glide upside down until he can make a crash landing, miraculously saving all but six of the 102 aboard. That's the harrowing beginning.

Hailed a hero, Whip faces extensive questioning as the NTSB investigates the cause of the crash -- while pilots' union representative Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenberg) and lawyer Huey Lang (Don Cheadle) work to nullify Whip's incriminating toxicology report.

Recovering in the hospital, Whip immediately summons his drug dealer (scene-stealing John Goodman). Sneaking into a stairwell for a smoke, Whip befriends Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a heroin-junkie who's determined to fight her substance abuse problem. Homeless, she moves in with Whip when he seeks refuge at his crop-dusting father's old farm. Divorced from his wife and alienated from his teenage son, Whip cannot turn to family for support, so a romantic relationship begins. The pacing of their lengthy melodrama and the abrupt, barely credible conclusion are the film's weaknesses.

Scripted by John Gatins, long before Capt. "Sully" Sullenberger's Hudson River landing, and directed by Robert Zemeckis, this character-driven thriller brings Zemeckis ("Forrest Gump," "Cast Away") back from motion-capture animation ("The Polar Express"). And Denzel Washington could be in Oscar contention as the deeply conflicted addict who's heavily into denial.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Flight" is an intense, serious 7, redefining "flying high."

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