White hats. Black hats. Heroes. Villains. Saints. Sinners.
Americans and filmgoers are accustomed to characters who neatly fit into one slot or the other. But in Flight, Denzel Washington presents a complicated character who saves lives even as he appears to be destroying his own with alcohol.
He's a veteran airline pilot, Captain Whip Whitaker, and if the name is reminiscent of real-life Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, that may be intentional.
Both guide crippled planes to crash or splash landings, although Whip's passenger jet goes into an uncontrolled dive - plummeting towards the ground in a fast and furious way - when he must improvise or literally die trying.
Whip cuts a fine figure in a pilot's uniform and aviator shades, but he's not a poster child for clean living. In the movie's opening scenes, he takes a swallow from one of the almost-empty beer bottles on his hotel nightstand, shares a puff of his bedmate's joint and then snorts some cocaine to try to clear his head.
Once aboard the plane bound from Orlando to Atlanta, he downs some black coffee, aspirins and, surreptitiously, orange juice with tiny bottles of vodka mixed in.
When, without warning, the plane loses its hydraulics, pitch and vertical control and enters an uncontrolled descent, Whip must use every tool at his disposal - and some found in no manuals - to try to save the 102 souls on board.
He wakes up an injured hero in the hospital but, as the days progress, his image starts to flip just like that plane.
Is he a superman, the only person who could have landed that doomed jet, or will the airline and National Transportation Safety Board pin the blame on him and deem Whip unfit to fly - or worse?
He finds himself surrounded by friends old and new, including his union rep (Bruce Greenwood), a longtime pal (John Goodman, stealing scenes again), a defence lawyer (Don Cheadle) and a recovering addict (Kelly Reilly) trying to start anew.
Robert Zemeckis, an Oscar winner for Forrest Gump, directs and the writer is John Gatins
Flight is the rare movie that brings God into the equation, although not in a heavy-handed, unnatural way. Much of the story takes place in the Bible Belt, after all. Whenever people emerge as survivors rather than victims, it is natural to talk about a miracle.
But the movie's complex, compelling themes about flawed heroes, denial, redemption, truth-telling and forgiveness make it soar.
Flight is released in Australian cinemas on January 31.