With the compelling "Flight," director Robert Zemeckis ("Forrest Gump") proves that his decade-long detour into computer animation hasn't dulled his live-action skills. The film tackles serious issues of addiction, legal intrigue and personal responsibility, with Denzel Washington in top form as a heroic yet morally compromised protagonist. The story begins as a white-knuckle air-disaster thriller, then evolves into an engrossing character study with strong, well defined performances. Zemeckis tempers his muscular realism with strands of often absurd humor and hints of divine intervention in human hearts, minds and flight plans.

Airline captain Whip Whitaker is an ideal role for Washington. Before his Oscar-winning detour into rogue roles in 2001's "Training Day," he mostly stuck to good-guy parts. Since then he has created a gallery of tough, morally ambiguous men snared in crises of their own creation. Whip is a seasoned pilot worthy of his weighty responsibilities. He's also flawed to his very core, a multiple-drug abuser who has learned how to perform his job capably while high, but has destroyed his relationship with his ex-wife and son.

When mechanical failure cripples his plane with a hundred passengers aboard, Whip saves the day with a miraculous rough landing. Here Zemeckis stages a midair catastrophe of screaming passengers and tumbling drink carts that equals the devastating cargo plane crackup he created in "Cast Away."

Having saved almost every soul on board, Whip becomes a media hero. But a man with so many secrets fears the spotlight, and Whip faces disgrace when he's found to have had drugs in his system while he was at the controls.

As the investigation into the accident proceeds, Whip is faced with a series of vital, ethically charged questions. Will he choose to drug away his anxiety and risk exposure, go cold turkey and lie to avoid professional ruin, or honestly face his addiction and accept the consequences? With Don Cheadle as his crisply efficient defense lawyer and John Goodman as his voluble, stuck-in-the-'80s drug dealer, Washington is chillingly authentic as the damaged, vacillating antihero.

The script by John Gatins is well constructed and exceptionally rich. The subsidiary characters are fully fleshed, with Bruce Greenwood fine as Whip's supportive colleague and Kelly Reilly affecting as Whip's fellow addict and potential savior. The story's themes of trauma are laced with overt and subtle religious symbolism. There are characters of shallow, dogmatic religiosity, and chance encounters that may be evidence that Whip is being directed by the guiding hand of providence. "Flight" is an intensely cinematic thriller that also touches on the universal.