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No, not George Clooney. Or Sean Penn or even Tom Hanks. “Cloud Atlas” proved it with Hanks.

Denzel Washington is the smartest working actor in major American movies – at least when it comes to knowing which films to make and whom to make them with. His brilliance at knowing what to do, how to do it and whom to do it with reaches its absolute apogee today with one of his best films – and best performances –in “Flight,” a harrowing then deeply affecting and powerful movie about a substance-abusing pilot forced by horrifying circumstance to come face-to-face with his own worst – and best – selves.

Without knowing the exact circumstances of John Gatins writing the superb script, the “high concept” here might be stated like this: What if Capt. Sully Sullenberger had been a druggy and an alcoholic?

That is, what if an extraordinary commercial airline pilot who became a national hero and a symbol of passenger trust in his profession for his heroism in a near catastrophic plane crash had been a drugged-up drunk?

Nothing, thank heaven, has ever besmirched Sullenberger’s reputation. So different is everything about both the man and the case in the center of Robert Zemeckis’ “Flight” that the only reason I mention it is the quality of national hero worship that descends on fictional pilot Whip Whitaker in “Flight,” when he lands a faulty aircraft with a wildly unorthodox and creative maneuver that saves almost everyone aboard his plane.

The little word “almost” is the biggest difference between the incredible heroism of Sullenberger landing a plane in the water and this fictional pilot whose demons can be no longer kept either hidden or quiet. More than 100 survive but six perish in the crash, which is as harrowing on film as any we’re likely to see. (Something of a peculiar specialty for Zemeckis. See his previous film “Cast Away.”)

While his new young co-pilot is essentially throwing up his hands and abandoning everyone to fate and others’ skills, Whip realizes the only thing that has any chance of stopping the plane’s sharp nosedive into oblivion is to turn the entire plane upside down and try to land in an empty field near a church whose congregants seem to be in the middle of an outdoor baptism.

The plane sheers off the top of the church steeple but what could have been an airplane disaster even more horrific and tragic than Flight 3407’s crash in Clarence becomes instead one that the preponderant majority of passengers and crew are able to walk away from.

It is stunning filmmaking – enormously exciting and powerful. But it is, by far, the lesser part of the movie. This is a powerful film about a man whose extraordinary mastery and control are only evident in the air. What we’re told is that Whip is one of precious few pilots anywhere with the skills to land that doomed plane.

Unfortunately, he’s also a coke-snorting drunk. His routine is to get drunk with the beautiful flight attendant he loves the night before, wake up next to her, do a little blow, put on dark glasses big enough to hide his eyes and enter the cockpit of a commercial jet smelling like a distillery with every exhale.

An alcoholic, at the very least. But a highly functional one, as many are.

It has taken American films a weirdly long time to understand the gripping narrative drama that is the essence of the recovery movement in America – all those speakers, all those stories, each one so different, each one so alike. Now that it has, it’s unlikely to let go for a long time.

And that’s what you’re seeing here with Whip – a hopelessly flawed hero who befriends kindred spirits out for a smoke on a hospital staircase and struggles mightily with addictions that might well have caused mass deaths but by dint of luck and consummate skill instead, preserved life under fatal adversity.

Washington is utterly extraordinary here. It’s his beleaguered bravado that is so stunning – that eminently American cockiness which our culture hammers into so many men from boyhood, only to leave it exposed often to an indifferent world.

This is a guy whose own personal wreckage is on the way. You watch Whip dance around it, find a fellow recovering addict (Kelly Reilly). He quits booze, begins again, quits again, relapses and, as we watch implodes at the worst possible time and place – while testifying about the crash before government investigators.

It’s there that Washington is extraordinary. His moral implosion at that moment is total. But all you see is his mouth going out of control and its reflection in his terrified, suffering eyes. You have to marvel at what actors can do.

It’s almost too good a performance for an Oscar. There’s nothing stuntlike about it – just a consummate movie actor doing what he does with as much mastery as a life-saving pilot.

Equally good in a smaller role and showier way is John Goodman as Whip’s lifelong pal and coke dealer, whose swagger and self-referential patter are the incarnation of Whip’s secret self, the thing he still desperately needs to get him in shape to testify at all (a near-classic scene for Goodman).

“Flight,” with its combination of filmmaking skill and personal dramatic power, is the sort of film whose existence many worry about in this age of dimwit puerile spectacle. With the likes of Washington, Goodman and Zemeckis, it’s alive and well in the hands of masters of their trade.

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flight

3 1/2 stars

Starring: Denzel Washington, John Goodman, Kelly Reilly, Bruce Greenwood, Tamara Tunie

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Running time: 138 minutes

Rating: R for language, nudity and sexuality, drugs and a very intense plane crash sequence.

The Lowdown: Much-acclaimed film about a heroic pilot with substance abuse problems.

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email: jsimon@buffnews.com