There's old-fashioned, and then there's old-fashioned, and then there's Flight, a movie that looked around at the state of contemporary cinema and concluded, "You know what we don't have enough of? Really earnest dipsomania melodramas". Which is a statement that, I suspect, not a single one of us would actually have agreed with in advance. The Lost Weekend is a nervy potboiler and all, but probably not really up for a 21st Century gloss.

Bu nonetheless, Flight happened, and for all that it approaches a hoary, messagey subject with an absolute minimum of grace and restraint - bottles of liquor loom in close-up like jagged mountains, and a late-film minibar is filmed like the very Gates of Hell, complete with a menacing rumble on the soundtrack - it's actually pretty good stuff. It helps to have a high, even inexhaustible tolerance for the overwrought, though one gets the suspicion that director Robert Zemeckis, making a very long-awaited (for some of us, anyway) return to live-action filmmaking, is aware of the somewhat hokey, overbearing elements in John Gatins's tremendously earnest screenplay, and is playing them up for the sake of being cheeky. Minimally, he at least has the grace to keep things sudsy rather than strident - Oscarbait it certainly is, but most social issues Oscarbait doesn't dabble this much in the visual iconography and, especially, the editing rhythms of a thriller - though he can do nothing about the unsalvageable epilogue, where a breast-beating but zesty climax collapses into gooey sentimentality with an oh-so-cute final exchange of dialogue that I'd have given quite a lot to have not heard.

Flight is about Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington), who is addicted to everything: booze and cocaine especially, as we see in the spectacularly casual opening scene, where he and co-worker/fuck-buddy Trina Marquez (Nadine Velasquez) stumble about in the morning, trying to get themselves put together while enjoying the last scraps of their substance-fueled night, before they shamble off to go serve on the Miami-Atlanta flight upon which he serves as captain and she as attendant. It's the first and probably the best of a number of scenes scattered throughout the movie that play out in a really lose, observational, very nearly non-narrative manner, conveying character exposition by the pound without coming out and saying that it's doing it, and it's a hell of a way to get the movie going: the terseness, the surgically precise cutting (editor Jeremiah O'Driscoll, who joined Team Zemeckis during his mo-cap years, is the movie's unsung MVP), the uncomfortably intimate camera, by which I mean both that it is close and insistent, and that there is a great deal of unsettling casual nudity, of a sort that would be even more impressive in its frankness if this weren't the year of The Sessions. None of it is vintage Zemeckis, exactly, but it is the plain mark of a filmmaker with strong gut instincts and a keen knowledge of the best way to impart information efficiently, and it has always been Zemeckis's efficiency that has impressed me.

It's also a moment that the rest of the movie honestly doesn't live up to, although there's a great deal more that's good in Flight than not. A lengthy chunk of the film follows Drunk & High Whip's morning heading to the plane and taking off in a nightmarish storm - he manages to pull off a tricky maneuver that gets the vehicle outside of a turbulent patch, and we are deliberately kept from knowing if it's the alcohol fueling his bravado, or not - and then, half-way through the flight, a disaster hits, and Whip executes an inexplicable series of flying moves that land the plane in something like one piece and only a very modest loss of life, and we are also deliberately kept from knowing if this is alcohol-fueled bravado, though it seems awfully likely that it is. And from then on out, it's all the ups and downs of the addict's life, as Whip's behavior is suddenly thrust under the magnifying glass, and he and a bunch of other people need to decide whether he gets filed in the Hero or Drunken Criminal pile.

The obvious point of Gatins's screenplay is that chemical dependency is not so binary as that; or at least, that is an obvious point of a screenplay that does not shy away from making obvious points at a feverish pitch. Whether this is defensible or not, I suspect, is a matter of personal taste. What remains, though is that Flight is not a harangue about the Evils of Drink, but a study of how damn difficult it is to get back in control once you're out of it: a character study told using the vocabulary of a message movie about substance abuse, rather than a message move which wraps itself around a single character. And it has, if nothing else, a terrific character to study: Whip is, at heart, just one more movie addict like so many before him, but he is also played by Denzel Washington in a performance that surely ranks among the best in his career: a harried blend of emotional states bleeding into one another erratically (but not arbitrarily), anchored by an exceptionally strong physical performance, with Washington using the cane and limp Whip receives after the crash to explore how Whip himself is play-acting at being a hero, a victim, or whichever.

To a certain degree, the film exists more to showcase Washington than to do anything else, though this is not to say that other performers don't get to make an impression: Don Cheadle, John Goodman, and Bruce Greenwood all give typically strong supporting performances, if none of them quite interested in doing more to carve out their own personality; the only other true standout is Kelly Reilly, coming from nowhere (or even worse, coming from the Sherlock Holmes movies) to give an excellent turn as another addict who crosses paths with Whip for a time and who is, outside of the star, the only performer graced with an arc of her very own to play with, and who makes the most of it, especially later on, as she is moving through her recovery too fast for him to keep up with.

What Flight doesn't quite showcase is Zemeckis, I am sorry to say: except insofar as he tends to get exceptionally good performances out of talented actors, and does so again here. There are some really lovely directorial touches: the plane crash itself is a masterpiece of visceral terror and if it made my stomach flip, I can't even imagine what it would do to someone already primed to fear air travel. Later, a scene with Whip alone in a hotel room, deciding whether or not to go to town on the minibar, is staged like an outright horror movie, with distorting lenses and glowering shadows and exaggerated sound design.

Mostly, though, this is not the triumphant return to live-action that I'd hoped for: it's not "rusty", but it's surely a bit stiff, particularly in the matter of pacing (this story doesn't need two and a quarter hours to tell it), with scenes stuck together with narrative purpose but no real flow. He also completely fumbles a film-long motif of Christian iconography and emphasis on the role of faith in daily life (it seems at times like Whip is a lonely agnostic in a world of evangelicals) by stomping all over the only moment that could possibly be the culmination of all this iconography, and so we're faced with the odd specter of a film that does everything it possibly can to flag its heavy-handed moral message, only to fail to actually provide that message.

Still, it's a solid, if unexceptional dramatic thriller about adult behvaior; minor cinema lifted up on the shoulders of one of the year's best movie star turns, and if it's not likely to stand up as a genuine classic, I can readily see it joining the ranks of The Lost Weekend and The Man with the Golden Arm in the annals of pretty much okay stories of addiction.