Denzel Washington shines in Flight as an airline pilot Captain Whip Whitaker who leads a life fueled by vices. Flight functions more as a character study of an addict than the “action-packed mystery thriller” it’s billed as, but it does that job so well it is easy to forget the disconnect between the movie’s marketing and the actual film.

When the plane he’s piloting begins falling apart mid-air, Whitaker keeps a cool head and expertly maneuvers the plane to an empty field saving almost everyone on board. He is instantly hailed as a hero. In their crash investigation, the National Transportation Security Board has 10 pilots attempt to repeat the feat in a simulation. None of them can.

But this is not a movie about hero worship. This is a movie about addiction, and Whitaker is not as clear-headed when it comes to running his own life. After union rep (Bruce Greenwood) and lawyer (Don Cheadle) inform him that a toxicology report found alcohol and cocaine in his system, Whitaker slips into a downward spiral of self-medication and denial. The stress of the impending hearing on the crash and media scrutiny pushes him further into his nosedive. He seeks solace in his new friend and recovering addict, Nicole, played with a beautiful dichotomy of vulnerability and strength by Kelly Reilly.

Robert Zemeckis directed the movie with excellent pacing and did an terrific job of matching the tone of a scene to Whitaker’s mental state. After the visually captivating crash, everything went quiet with a flash of white light and a few glimpses of the aftermath. Zemeckis showed just the right amount of destruction to carry the mood without resorting to gore. The moment was disorienting and helped put the audience in Whitaker’s place.

When Whitaker’s jolly Dude-like dealer friend (John Goodman) visits, he brings with him a tone equally as jovial and the tone is injected with an instant rush of energy. At Whitaker’s emotional low points, the setting feels darker and the pace slower. With the buzz of an open refrigerator and the cracking of the seal of a bottle of vodka the audience can feel the crack of Whitaker’s resolve.

There is a subtlety to Washington’s portrayal of Whitaker’s intoxication that adds credibility to the idea that a man like Whitaker would even be allowed near a plane. His character seems to know how to function best when drunk and high on cocaine. He is capable of hiding his impaired condition with finesse under pressure.  Washington plays a man who is skilled at lying to himself. His reaction to the pressure of being under investigation is truly believable. Even though his character is thoroughly dislikable throughout much of the movie, Washington shows enough nuance in his performance to keep the audience from dismissing Whitaker all together. He makes it possible to feel for him while despite his negative traits.

Overall this was a very engaging interesting look at a character forced by an act of God to come to terms with himself. The pacing, directing and acting were strong enough to sustain its 138 minute runtime and darker undertones.