A movie review of Robert Zemeckis' "Flight," starring Denzel Washington in one of the year's finest performances as a respected pilot, who's also an alcoholic and cocaine addict.

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In Robert Zemeckis’ “Flight,” we watch a master actor play a character who’s always acting. “Whip” Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is a respected pilot who enjoys the perks of his profession: the respect his uniform and title commands, the pretty flight attendants, the thrill-ride fun of steering a plane to its safe landing. He’s also an alcoholic and a cocaine addict, remarkably skilled at hiding those facts. Early on in “Flight,” he boards a plane, high on cocaine and still drunk from the night before. Other than a very faint slurriness, you’d never know he was impaired; Whip’s an actor, with a carefully polished face he shows to the world.

But this flight is different from all the others. Something in the machinery goes terribly wrong, and Whip must make a series of quick decisions and dangerous maneuvers. It’s a jittery, alarming action sequence, meticulously edited and ultimately quite disturbing (avoid “Flight,” I’d suggest, if you’re flying anytime soon) — but things turn out as well as they possibly can, with Whip landing the plane in a field and saving 96 of the 102 people on board. And that’s where “Flight” really begins: Is Whip a hero? Or, as an investigation into the accident begins to show, criminally negligent and a disgrace to his profession?

Written by John Gatins, “Flight” moves along deliberately, letting us watch Whip as he tries to numb himself to what happened. He develops an unlikely romance with a heroin addict (Kelly Reilly), who’s got her own demons, and reluctantly faces a lawyer (Don Cheadle) who knows exactly what happened but is willing to help cover it up. Through it all Whip maintains a confident bravado (“No one could have landed that plane like I did!”), but watch what Washington’s doing: what he conveys with the tiniest quiver of the lip or briefest pause in a sentence; how the sharp edges of Whip’s personality get eroded, often very subtly, when he’s using; how he can’t quite look Cheadle’s character in the eye.

You may not like Whip, but you can’t take your eyes off him — and finally, thanks to one of the year’s finest performances, you start to understand him.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com