There are only a few certainties in life: dropped toast will always land buttered side down, the Chicago Cubs will never win another World Series, and it is impossible for Denzel Washington to be anything less than brilliant.

His latest, Robert Zemeckis’ Flight, may just be the finest acting job of his incredible career– a multi-layered, intense masterclass in portraying a man addled with drug and alcohol addiction.

I know. You’re thinking, “Wait, I thought it was about a plane crash.” The truth is that aviation takes a distant back seat in Flight, bookending a fascinating morality tale that’s a lot closer to Leaving Las Vegas than anything else.

Veteran pilot Whip Whitaker (Washington) wakes up in his Orlando hotel room with a naked stewardess by his side. He polishes off a little hair of the dog, snorts a line or two, and then gets dressed for his flight to Atlanta. A half-hour into the flight, the airplane fails, sending it (and the 102 people on board) nose first into the ground from six miles up.

Whitaker, despite (or maybe because of) the subtances in his system, acts quickly (and very creatively) to save the day; only 6 people died in a crash that should have killed everyone.

The real story of Flight, though, is of Whitaker’s complete and absolute alcohol addiction. Capable of swigging from a gallon of vodka in one breath and appearing completely coherent in the next, he can’t bring himself to admit that he’s an alcoholic. While in the hospital recovering from the crash he meets recovering heroin addict Nicole (Kelly Reilly), and when they strike up a relationship, Flight begins to really take off.

Zemeckis, directing a movie with real live people for the first time since 2000’s Cast Away, proves that he hasn’t lost any of the story-telling magic he brought to Forrest Gump and even the Back to the Future series. The plane crash sequence is an amazing piece of filmmaking– as realistic as it is harrowing. But the crash-and-burn of Whitaker at the hands of his pals Stoli and Budweiser is even more riveting.

Throughout the course of Flight Washington meticulously creates one of the most engaging anti-heroes in recent memory. Whitaker is a loser with no redeeming quality other than his obvious pilot skills, but thanks to Washington’s brutally honest performance he actually becomes sympathetic. And Reilly’s brilliantly understated performance is equally captivating.

Without giving anything away I’ll mention that Flight suffers only in its ending. I’ll contest that screenwriter John Gatins (Real Steel) took the wrong fork in the road, but there’s plenty of room for argument on the other side, too.

What’s undeniable, though, is that Flight is an eminently watchable, highly compelling study of one man’s downward spiral, and that Washington’s superb work makes it soar.

4.5/5 stars