The first five minutes of Flight are gratuitously graphic — and I'm not talking about the plane crash.
The film opens on the tip of a bare breast and pulls back to reveal a naked young woman who stumbles to the bathroom and back to bed, where she dons her scanties and lights up a joint. Meanwhile her lover wakes to the sound of his cellphone and argues with a caller, most assuredly his ex-wife, who is asking for money. He finishes the call, reaches for a glass from the bedside table, and downs last night's booze before taking a hit from the girl's joint. Tired, hung over, and angry at his ex-wife, the man dresses and takes a gasp of cocaine to clear his head and focus his brain. Then he dons his captain's hat. He is about to pilot a plane.
Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is a crackerjack former Navy pilot who knows how to handle his liquor. While buckling in, he orders black coffee from the head flight attendant (Tamara Tunie), then takes a couple of giant whiffs of pure oxygen, much to the horror of his young co-pilot (Brian Geraghty). Fortunately, when it comes to flying a plane, Whip knows what he's doing. Half an hour before landing, the elevator fails in the tail, forcing the plane to nose dive straight toward the ground. Relying mostly on instinct, he manages a spectacular landing and saves almost everyone aboard from what would have been certain death.
Thus begins the dilemma of the film. Whip is a hero, right? The crash was caused by mechanical failure, not by pilot error. In fact, Whip's quick thinking and masterly piloting prevented nearly a hundred deaths. Yet his alcohol level was three times the legal limit. Should he be praised for the 98 lives he saved, or held accountable for the six passengers who died?
With Denzel at the helm, I expected this to be a film about a casual drinker who may have had a glass of wine the night before flying and is unfairly punished because of arbitrary and unbending government regulation. I thought this would be an interesting libertarian study. Instead, it is about an out-of-control alcoholic who still flies jet airplanes for a living. Although the trailers for Flight promise a thrilling disaster movie on par with Airport (1970), the movie is actually a character study more akin to Days of Wine and Roses (1962).
It's a calculated act of aggression, and it turns a gesture of love into a kind of violence, almost like a rape.
Once you realize that's what it is, it is quite good. We see Whip go through all the classic problems of the addicted personality. Disgusted with himself, he pours out all his alcohol (and he has alcohol of every shape and brand hidden just about everywhere). He sobers up for a few days, and then he buys more. He destroys relationships with family and friends. When a drinking buddy decides to sober up, he walks away.
In one unforgettable scene at the home of Whip's ex-wife, his teenage son confronts him and swears at him, telling him to leave their house. Whip is furious. He wants to hit his son for sassing him, but he knows that if he does, he'll be arrested. So he hugs him instead. It's a calculated act of aggression, and it turns a gesture of love into a kind of violence, almost like a rape. It’s also a lie. Pure genius, and for those who have experienced that kind of aggression, it rings frighteningly true. This is a man who knows how to beat the system, with a smile on his face.
What I find most troubling about this story is the fact that Whip's colleagues know that he is an alcoholic, and they do nothing to stop it. I'm no Pollyanna — I recognize that most alcoholics are surrounded by enablers who help them lie — but Whip is putting their own lives in danger. When a nurse looks the other way as an alcoholic doctor prepares for surgery, she may be thinking, "Why should I get involved?" The person on the operating table is a stranger, first of all, and the rest of the surgical team will watch for mistakes. The nurse's own life isn't in jeopardy. It’s wrong, but you can understand it. Yet what would induce a flight attendant to board a plane captained by an inebriated pilot? If he crashes the plane, she goes down with it too.
Nevertheless, research shows that many pilots and flight attendants have problems with substance abuse. Random blood tests identify several pilots each year with alcohol levels above the legal limit, and the FAA has a policy — a policy! — of requiring substance abusers to go through rehab therapy before returning to work. Yes! They are allowed to return to the skies! If you weren't afraid of flying before, you probably ought to be now. The only saving grace is the fact that autopilot controls most flights these days, and the chances of having an inebriated pilot and co-pilot in the cockpit at the same time are fairly slim.
The members of Whip’s flight crew know he's an alcoholic, but they don't turn him in. His girlfriends enjoy getting high with him. His attorneys (Bruce Greenwood, Don Cheadle) are more concerned with winning his case than with protecting the flying public. They will do anything to shelter Whip, and Whip will do anything to get away with what he’s doing. A friend of mine who grew up with two alcoholic parents wisely observed, "The AA confession should be 'I'm an alcoholic . . . and I'm a liar,'" because being addicted to anything always leads to lying. Deception at first, then half truths, then outright lying. Addicts get so good at it! Both weaknesses have to be acknowledged before the person can change.
And then there is his drug dealer, Harling Mays (John Goodman). Harling struts into the scene channeling Wolfman Jack with his dark glasses, goatee, greasy pony tail, oversized bowling shirt, and Rolling Stones soundtrack ("it's just a shot away" of course). Goodman revels in this role. It's probably the most fun he's had since . . . well, since last month's Argo. Goodman seems to love every part he plays, and it's infectious.
Harling is a pharmaceutical distributor who dispenses cocaine with the precision of a medical doctor. He even makes house calls. When the alcohol has created too much of a depressant, he prescribes just the right amount of stimulant to elevate the brain and get it leveled off. He's a pro.
And yes, in case you hadn't noticed, the plane crash itself is a metaphor for the alcoholic. When the chemical "elevator" stops working, Whip goes into a dive and crashes, destroying others in his path. He tries to whip himself into shape, but he can't do it alone. He needs help.
Like Days of Wine and Roses, this film could have become maudlin, preachy, and overlong. But also like that classic film, Flight rises on the strength of the actors who inhabit it, and the ending soars. It's an important film. I just wish Hollywood weren't so addicted to pushing the edge of decency. While that opening scene is important for establishing Whip's character, the nudity is simply unnecessary.