A drunk pilot passes out behind the controls and wakes up only when his SouthJet Airline plane takes a nose-dive. That’s the opening 15 minutes of Robert Zemeckis’s live action thriller-drama, “Flight,” which is a must-see, especially for gaining some insight into the diseases of alcoholism and drug addiction.
The movie intro is so intense that I nearly walked out, finding it unbearable to watch a pilot wake up in his hotel room and take his first drink of alcohol of the day only to be visibly erratic in his behavior when he gets to work and sits down in the cockpit. There’s no way this routine flight from Orlando to Atlanta will end well, I thought. In fact, feeling sick for most of the film, I considered starting this post with “I made the mistake of seeing ‘Flight’ this weekend.”
“Flight’s” plot has lots of turbulence. Where do you go after having a drunk pilot, who’s also high on cocaine, trying to control a passenger jet falling nose-first out of the sky? Amazingly, Zemeckis adds lots of rough pockets after his scary take-off: a probing federal investigation, rocky relationships with women, funerals, lies, and trips to the liquor store.
As the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigates the incident, we learn more about Whip Whitaker, played superbly by Denzel Washington, and his addiction to alcohol and drugs. Many scenes are dark and disturbing, and the isolation and anger so common in the lives of alcoholics and addicts are depicted explicitly as Whitaker tries to pull himself out of his drunken stupors by dumping alcohol, making promises, and bargaining with the people in his life. For anyone in recovery or for anyone who knows an alcoholic or addict, Washington’s performance may hit too close to home.
In fact, Washington’s portrayal of a troubled drunk working professional is so gripping, I found myself begging Whitaker to straighten up and fly right, a plea that over-simplifies the realities of his disease. The sympathy I felt for Whip (side-note: a black man named Whip?) was torn back-and-forth between understanding he’d have to make his own decisions to get sober when he’s ready (that all I could do was sit back and watch) and praying, hoping, willing him toward sobriety (an improbably effort, especially as Whitaker is fictional). For a film to churn up such emotional reactions from me says a great deal about the strengths of its writing, directing, acting, and theme.
I left “Flight” feeling troubled and moved. It deserves an award for highlighting the fact that alcohol and drug addiction is not a disease of reason and also that it’s a disease that does not discriminate. Our pop culture glamorizes drinking far too much — think of the bar-hopping/club-fighting cast of “Jersey Shore” and a suave Diddy’s Ciroc vodka ads — but what “Flight” does is show the narrative of the pain deeply rooted at the core of the alcoholic/addict. “Flight” illustrates that sobering truth that alcohol really is cunning, baffling, powerful.*
Take tissues when you see it.