Flight is about as subtle as a plane crash. And the plane crash at the beginning of Flight ain't too subtle, either. At 30,000 feet, a commercial airliner carrying more than 100 passengers descends suddenly into free fall above rural Atlanta. Its pilot, Capt. William "Whip" Whitaker (Denzel Washington)—who is seen earlier surreptitiously gulping a screwdriver—is passed out in his seat. Jolted awake, Whitaker takes the controls and, with the composure of someone parallel parking a Smart Car, guides the craft into a roll, slowing its downward trajectory enough to land the plane relatively calmly in a field. He saves the lives of nearly everyone on board but clips the steeple of a small church on the way down, thus kicking off a film packed with references to "acts of God" (in both the legal and metaphorical sense), a montage of heroin use set to "Under the Bridge" and, near its end, a close-up of a single tear rolling down a cheek. 

That the crash itself is shot with armrest-clasping terror isn't surprising: After all, the best part of Cast Away, director Robert Zemeckis' last live-action film before embarking on a decade of motion-capture animation, was the scene of Tom Hanks' doomed cargo plane going down in the middle of the Pacific. And the fact that an intriguing premise gets smashed to bits by a sledgehammer of sentiment isn't surprising, either: Zemeckis also made Forrest Gump. But with Flight, he squanders a rich opportunity to question the nature of heroism in the Media Age: Would we, for instance, think any different of Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger's 2009 heroics on the Hudson if we knew he was out doing blow and banging flight attendants the night before? Instead, Flight is basically a movie about how flying planes drunk is a bad idea.

Even Washington, so often preternaturally commanding, is at a loss. Granted, he's got little to work with: Whitaker is, theoretically, a complex man, but John Gatins' script reduces him to an alcoholic in denial. Washington's turn, all stuttering and bitter-beer face, offers only a glimpse of how his self-parodying Pacino Years will look. Then again, this is a movie that, at its dramatic climax, takes a jarring, implausible slide into Hangover-style drug humor. It's a wreck nobody had a chance of surviving. R.

Critic's Grade: C- 

SEE IT: Flight opens Friday at Cedar Hills, Eastport, Clackamas, Lloyd Center, Pioneer Place, Bridgeport, Division, Evergreen Parkway, Movies on TV, Tigard.