The yammering about "Oscar gold" and Denzel Washington's potential three-peat will soon reach a deafening pitch, but such noise can only embarrass a fine character study like Flight, whose prevailing tone is a heavy melancholy. The mood is there from the opening, when William "Whip" Whitaker (Washington) is waking in a bottle-strewn hotel suite, last night's company fishing her thong from behind a recliner. Much the worse for the wear after his long weekend, Whip gets ready for work with a snort of coke, and is young again as he swaggers into the cockpit for a morning flight—Whip, you see, is a commercial-airline captain. It's not Whip's shabby state, however, that eventually puts his plane into a sudden free fall. Drawing on a lifetime of experience, Whip improvises a miraculous plan that brings craft and passengers down more or less safely. To hush up a medical report of Whip's potent blood-alcohol level at the crash scene and to coach him through the investigation, a lawyer, Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle), is brought in to do damage control at the behest of the pilot's union rep, Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood), an old Navy buddy of Whip's and custodian of the open secret of his drinking. Anderson's opposite is Whip's dealer, Harling, played with dirtbag bonhomie by John Goodman. Calm and chaos commingle beautifully in the crash-landing set piece as handled by director Robert Zemeckis, making his first live-action film since 2000's Cast Away. It's not surprising that Zemeckis' handling of spectacle would be undiminished, but he hasn't lost his touch with actors, either, coaching Washington into one of those rare performances that suggests much more than it shows.