FLIGHT is a deeply affecting character study buried under an unnecessary narrative.

The film marks a return to live action filmmaking for director Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, Back to the Future) after more than a decade of wallowing in motion capture experiments. It becomes immediately apparent that it’s tonally different than anything else he’s attempted before – excessive language, drug use and full frontal nudity are front and center in the opening frame. But ironically, the film stumbles where Zemeckis is most at home.

Denzel Washington plays Whip Whitaker, an accomplished airline pilot who miraculously lands a malfunctioning plane, saving nearly every life on board in jaw-droppingly heroic fashion. But post-crash toxicology tests reveal that he was under the influence of alcohol and cocaine at the time of the flight.

This setup promises a lot of possibilities that are not delivered upon. Surprisingly, FLIGHT is actually a somber portrait of a man’s slow realization that he is an alcoholic and drug addict. But the film’s ‘plane crash mystery’ subplot fails to lend much to this journey; it feels at times that the movie is begging for a more intimate treatment without all the noise and nonsense of this useless, disingenuous device.

The movie is at its best when it fully invests in Denzel Washington’s masterful performance; he really is a glorious actor. His portrayal of an addict in crisis is harrowing, and makes FLIGHT one of the most effective depictions of addiction in recent years, in spite of the film’s many missteps along the way.