There are times when an author or screenwriter says more than they intend to say. I wonder if Flight is one of those times. I don’t know the screenwriter (John Gatins) and his worldview. But it closely approximates a biblical worldview, and there are a number of characters who are Christians.
Flight is not an enjoyable movie to watch, unless you enjoy watching a man destroy his life. Flight is mostly about the destructive power of sin, though there is a strong theme of common grace and, at the end, a taste of redemption. As a result, it is not as depressing and nihilistic as Leaving Las Vegas. While it depicts lots of sin, it is not trying to justify or glorify it. It shows the hell of it.
The first few minutes of the movie are tough to watch if you have a sensitive conscience. Our introduction to the main character, Captain “Whip” Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is in a hotel room after a night of excess that included sex, booze and drugs. While his partner for the night wanders around the room naked (eventually, and mercifully, she gets dressed) he argues on the phone with his ex-wife and then prepares for work by snorting some coke. What we see is not a “nice” guy.
But Whip is an excellent pilot. When the flight from Orlando to Atlanta goes terribly wrong he is able to pull the plane out of an uncontrolled dive (in a very harrowing scene), and land it in a large field. He awakens in a hospital to discover that 4 passengers and 2 crew (including the woman with whom he was partying) have died. We later learn that in the simulator, no one could land the plan safely. This incredibly flawed man does something heroic.
But what saved the plane and passengers is part of his incredible undoing. He is a prideful, arrogant man who is blind to the path of destruction he is blazing as he satisfies his idolatry with regard to booze and drugs. The movie is more about an addict who is a pilot than a pilot who is an addict.
While in the hospital, he meets Nicole (Kelly Reilly) who is there from a drug overdose. Her mother’s death to cancer sent her over the edge, and she has debased herself pursuing her addiction. It is as if she wants to die. As she is wheeled out of her apartment in a stretcher, the out of control plane zooms past. In their brokenness, they seem to make a connection while smoking in the stairwell.
The music of the Rolling Stones figures prominently in the movie. When we first meet John Goodman’s character, Harling Mays, Sympathy for the Devil is playing. He is Whip’s personal devil- his drug dealer. They also have Gimme Shelter in the movie, saying that help is “just a shout away” but Whip proudly refuses to follow the advice.
The hero is about to get hung out because his secret is about to come out. Initially he stops drinking. You have hope as he dumps all the beer and booze down the sink, and flushes the drugs that remain. But it doesn’t last because it is driven by his pride.
He stumbles upon Nicole again, helps her out with the landlord and takes her in. Together they try to get past their demons. She gets into AA. He resists, walking out of the one meeting he dares attend. Pride can’t face the lies he tells.
Whip is seemingly surrounded by Christians. The head flight attendant who helped him in the cockpit during the flight has repeatedly invited him to church. The co-pilot on the flight is a Christian (though of the cooky variety). They and Nicole essentially plead with him to turn from his sin and find hope again. But he resists the grace that is being held out to him because it means leaving the sin he loves.
His union rep and lawyer (Don Cheadle) also plead with him. They are fighting to keep him out of jail. Their pleas are largely unheard as he continually shows up to meetings with them drunk. Eventually he verbally abuses Nicole, who decides to leave while he’s sleeping it off, again.
“The sin that is most destructive in your life right now is the one you are most defensive about.” Tim Keller
You really are caught up on the hopelessness of the situation as Whip fights those who love him enough to tell him something is wrong. But his pride blinds him to how bad things are, even though he loses of the support of everyone who used to care for him. The lies necessary to maintain this hard pursuit of his idols keep racking up like the empty bottles. Soon he’s asking other members of the crew to lie for him.
Fortunately for him, there was a point beyond which he was not willing to go to save his own skin. There was one lie he was not able to tell. And so his redemption began as he stopped defending the sin that was ravaging his life and the lives of all who loved him.
It is a risky role for Denzel because it is one of the few roles in which he is not a likeable or sympathetic character. You grow in your dislike for him as the movie goes on. You share the opinion of those he has burned (credit the film making of Zemeckis, again).
There are some weaknesses. The CGI work doesn’t look quite right. A pilot and engineer friend noted that the crash reconstruction and hearing were not close to reality. But most people will not care about that very much.
It is a risky screenplay. In some ways it plays off the recent real-life story of a pilot to made an incredible landing, saving the passengers. You think this might be a feel good story. It is anything but that. It ends with a taste of redemption however. He is able to begin again even though his worst fears come to pass. There can be life in the ruins of a life- if we are humbled and look outside of ourselves.