It’s rare enough that a film deals with alcoholism. Not just people getting fucked up like say Project X, but an in depth examination at hitting rock bottom, crawling back up, admitting you’ve got a problem, and talking the path to recovery. Also, it’s rare enough that a studio makes a film set inside the air travel industry. Perhaps not coincidentally this weekend two, count ‘em two, films dealing with alcoholics open: Flight and Smashed.

Movies were people go through delirium tremens would include The Lost Weekend (1945, four Oscars including actor, director and picture) and Days of Wine and Roses (1962). Those films still hold up but with some adjustment for studio and acting conventions of the time. More recently Leaving Las Vegas won Nicolas Cage an Oscar for his portrait of a man who literally drinks himself to death in the titular city. Let’s face it, a person couldn’t commit suicide just by smoking joints, but put enough alcohol in your system and it’s like mainlining poison.

Smashed stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Flight stars Denzel Washington; in both instances they give the kind of performance that’s easily called tour de force. Both films are actually very low budgets for their respective manner of filmmaking: Smashed being an independent effort picked up by Sony Pictures Classics while Flight was made by Paramount for around $31-million (chicken feed for a studio film).

Winstead, my new girlfriend, has found a role that demands acting chops and she’s up to the challenge. Previously Winstead showed scope but not particularly range in roles like the short-lived television show Wolf Lake and movies like Scott Pilgrim and Death Proof. For Smashed, Winstead walks (or rides a bike) in a beer and booze haze occasionally lit by crack or wine. She wears a constant wardrobe of maxi dresses that look like oversize shopping bags. Smashed peers into the world of functioning alcoholism, with Winstead adopting the guise with a whisky opaque vision of a first grade school teacher. If there was any problem with Smashed (or with Flight) it would boil down to how a film established a set reality. Both movies are extremely real in terms of cravings, lifestyle and sets. So when Smashed has a principal fire Winstead on circumstantial evidence it rang an alarm bell of falseness. In California, where Smashed unwinds, teacher unions have such a strong presence that that would never happen.

Similarly unions play a strong part of the story of Flight. After a white knuckle opening where filmmaker Robert Zemeckis puts the viewer in the pilot’s seat when a malfunctioning tail flap puts a jetliner into a nosedive from 30,000 feet, the rest of the film becomes a NTSB procedural as well as a thoughtful character study. The dive ends in a successful save by Washington who inverts the plane then glides it into a crash landing in a vacant field saving all but four lives of the over 100 on board. Bruce Greenwood plays a pilot’s union rep that’s the first person Washington sees when he recovers in the hospital. Federal regulations require that all airline personnel have blood drawn after a crash (whether they’re alive or dead). Washington’s blood sample is off the charts, with over 2.0 alcohol and traces of cocaine. Washington plays a functioning drug addict. Washington’s legal drug are cigarettes and there’s a hospital stairwell sequence involving smokes and wounded patients that’s one of the best written dialogue scenes I’ve seen this year.

Greenwood uses the power of his union to get a high-powered lawyer (Don Cheadle, “My clients don’t go to jail.”) to throw Washington’s blood test out of a NTSB hearing on a slight technicality. John Goodman and Kelly Reilly co-star and have a couple of scene stealing moments. I talked to a couple of flight professionals last night, at a bar natch, and they told me the union lobbies hotels where airline employees stay for a deal called the 3-2-1. That’s where airline employees get mixed drinks for three dollars, wine for two dollars and beer for one buck. That’s a hell of a union.

— Michael Bergeron