If you, like me, begin to sweat at the least bit of turbulence when flying, then the first 20–30 minutes of “Flight” will be very hard to watch. The realistic scenes of an airliner taking off in a thunderstorm and crash landing in a field outside Atlanta are as harrowing as any I’ve seen in a movie. Needless to say, this movie won’t be an option on your next overseas trip!
As impressive as the flying scenes are, “Flight” is more concerned with the inner turbulence of pilot “Whip” Whitaker (Denzel Washington in an Oscar-worthy performance) whose life is spinning out of control. Before the flight in question, Whip engages in a night of alcohol, cocaine, and sex with Katerina, a flight attendant. (Be forewarned that this scene is rather explicit). When he enters the cockpit with Ken, his young co-pilot, Whip is legally intoxicated. Yet his skill as an experienced pilot allows him to escape the crash with minor injuries. That’s been the story of Whip’s life. By using his strength, he is narrowly able to escape the downward spiral of his life.
So that he may recuperate from his injuries away from the media, Whip temporarily moves out to his grandfather’s farm. He takes Nicole, a young woman who he met in the hospital, with him. In a powerful scene, Whip, Nicole, and a young man meet each other for an illicit smoke in a stairway. They bond with each other for a moment while discussing mortality. The young man is a cancer patient, Nicole is an addict, and Whip narrowly escaped death. All discover the fragility of life. Curiously, there is no mention of the hazards of cigarette smoking in the movie, which features more scenes of cigarette smoking than I’ve seen in a long time.
With the help of AA and her sponsor, Nicole is able to get a job and stay sober. Whip, however continues his downward spiral of substance abuse. Nicole is resolved not to return to her horrible past life as an addict. Even though she cares about Whip, she knows she cannot remain with him while he is still using, so she leaves the farm with her sponsor. When he realizes Nicole has left, Whip continues his self-destructive behavior.
“Flight” is notable for its spiritual content. As they prepare for takeoff on the ill-fated flight, a flight attendant reports to Whip that there are 120 “souls” on board. As it is landing, the plane clips a church steeple, narrowly missing a group of Pentecostals who are baptizing in a small pond. When Whip and his lawyer visit the crash site, Whip learns that the people return to the site every day to pray for those who were killed or injured in the crash. There is some discussion of the crash as an “act of God.” When Whip visits Ken in the hospital and finds his injuries much worse than his, Ken’s wife tells Whip that they are “blessed.” Ken tells the truth about Whip’s state the morning of the flight, and asks him to pray with them. Whip does so, with obvious discomfort.
Also, Whip goes to a church to attend Katerina’s funeral service. As much as he cared for her, Whip cannot go in, but stays on the outside, unable to participate.
There are several references to the crash as an “act of God.” Was it? Certainly it’s a turning point for Whip, forcing him to confront his alcoholism. It serves as a wakeup call for Whip. Will he admit help, or continue his destructive behavior? When a pilot’s union rep advises Whip to lie about his drinking on the day of the crash, Whip replies that no one has to tell him how to lie about his drinking. He’s been doing it for years. In the climax of the film, Whip is given the opportunity to finally tell the truth about his life, or continue to lie. He can shift the blame to another person, or finally take responsibility for the mess of his life. It’s often said that an addict has to hit rock bottom before admitting his or her need for help. Whip and Nicole are examples of this.
“Flight” is a strong, powerful film with excellent performances, directed by Oscar-winning director Robert Zemeckis, who gave us another harrowing plane crash in “Cast Away.” The lives of Whip, Nicole, and Katerina include sex and substance abuse. Zemeckis and screenwriter John Gatins do not shy away from this material in explicit scenes. Yet, as hard as they are to watch, I think they are essential to the plot. Be advised that there is a lot of turbulence in this movie.
A few months ago, I watched the classic 1962 movie “The Days of Wine and Roses,” with great performances by Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick as an alcoholic couple. I found it remarkable for its courage and realism, not relying on a happy ending. While different in many ways, “Flight” serves as a worthy successor today, with Whip and Nicole as the couple who deal with addiction. “Flight” caused me to reflect on those I have known who have struggled with addiction in their lives.
I appreciated this strong, unflinching and thoughtful film, and think you will too.
Tom Condon, OP