Flight isn’t a movie about recovery. It isn’t a movie about redemption although in the end Robert Zemekis and his fantastic actor Denzel Washington hint at both for their Whip Whitaker, the pilot who makes a miraculous crash landing by flying a plane upside down. We don’t get to see a character getting better scene by scene as we triumph in the strength of the human spirit. Flight is a movie about a man’s problems and the ways he refuses to acknowledge them. “Don’t tell me how to lie about my drinking, okay” Whip tells the lawyer who is trying to protect him. “I know how to lie about my drinking. I’ve been lying about my drinking my whole life.”
Having spent the night before (and some of the morning) screwing, drinking, snorting and smoking, Whip boards the passenger plane and takes his usual seat- the captain’s chair in the cockpit. With a cocktail mix of alcohol and drugs that would leave most people completely incapacitated, Whip prepares to take off in a storm, totally charming the flight attendants who know him but slightly frightening his new co-pilot who can smell the booze the moment he meets Whip. Threading the eye of the storm with some daredevil maneuvers that both terrify and thrill the passengers (they break out into applause once Whip gets them through the worst turbulence of their lives up until this point,) Zemekis and Washington quickly establish Whip as an addict who basically needs to feed his addictions to have any hope of operating normally or even excelling as he does during this flight.
Once those addictions are uncovered as part of the NTSB’s standard investigation into the crash, Whip continues to live in denial and in need. Accepting another addict Nicole into his life, he looks to her to be an enabler and partner but she wants (or more importantly needs) to change. Wanting to find someone to talk to, a cancer patient haunts that same stairwell, hoping to find someone to bum a cigarette off of. Mark starts babbling on about his circumstance. He’s got a captive audience because they don’t want to seem rude to a dying man. This is the one of the spiritual moments in the movie as Mark shares his own unique insights into life and death and God with Whip and Nicole.
It feels like Zemekis wants to make a movie about spirituality and faith. In an all-too-obvious moment in the film just minutes before the hallway smoke break, Zemekis introduces us to Harling Mays, Whip’s drug dealer, as Harling struts through the hallway to The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy For the Devil.” It’s a heavy handed introduction to the character. “Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste.” Harling is the devil, giving Whip the temptations he wants. Near the end of the movie, when Whip needs to gather the strength and wherewithal to face an investigation board, he once again looks to Harling to provide everything he needs. After an all night booze bender, raiding the mini fridge in an adjoining hotel room (where to shared door with his room was all too conveniently left unlocked,) the only person who he thinks can help him is the man who can supply almost everything that caused all of Whip’s troubles in the first place.
Mark in that stairwell wondered where God was. Did God give him the cancer? It’s an understandable thought to have. Where was God when the plane crashed? Was he there saving 98 people or had he forsaken the six people who died there. Whip lives with his own God complex, proclaiming “no one else could have landed that plane” even as he’s having to admit to the copious amounts of alcohol and cocaine that were in his system. He was the savior that day. At least, in his own mind he was. Zemekis and Washington don’t sugarcoat who Whip is. He’s an addict who is more dangerous to people than he wants to believe. Nicole recognizes this in Whip, at first seeing him as protection but soon realizing that she is a stronger person in their friendship but also seeing how he could become her Harling. “Just call me Lucifer/ Cause I’m in need of some restraint.”
After the stairwell scene, we never again see Zemekis’s cancer-stricken prophet but Whip gets small doses of religion throughout the film even if he willfully avoids any true “come to Jesus” moments. Evyone gives him outs, ways to avoid his own complicity in all of the events. To get him to the final NTSB’S hearing, his union rep and lawyer have to call in the devil one final time. Harling knows just what Whip wants (or worse yet, what he needs) as the only way for a drunken Whip to face the inquiry is to get high. Denying over and over his own physical state at the time of the crash, it looks like he is going to get away with it until he’s faced with one final act of deceipt that’s just too much for him. Zemekis and Washington finally get to a point so low in Whip’s life that he can’t live with. He has just one more lie to tell before he can go home, cleared of any wrong doing.
“God help me’” he mutters under his breath. There is the moment where we see the man. There we see someone who realizes who and what he has become and can no longer live with it. It’s a great moment for the character and the actor but I don’t know if the movie ever really earns it. Like the all to obvious moment when we meet Harling to the Stones’ “Sympathy For the Devil,” Zemekis doesn’t want to terribly challenge his audience. He wants to lay everything out there and make it easy to follow Whip from Point A to Point B and all the way to Point Z. The surprise comes at the end when Whip finds an inner strength (either from the God his petitions or just a strength of character he didn’t know that he had) but you had to figure out that some rpersonal revelation had to be coming for the movie. Zemekis wasn’t going to leave us with “Whip was a drunk and an addict who lived happily high ever after.”
Zemekis even goes for the easy way with his main character. Whip may be a great role for Denzil Washington but he’s also a caricature of a character. He’s everything we expect him to be. Mark and Nicole, the two strongest and most interesting supporting characters, are the characters I wish Whip could have been. They were the characters who were surprising. They questioned the world around them and they looked for answers in ways that Whip never did. They struggled while Whip just passively moved from scene to scene. So when at the end Whip has his moment of clarity, we never know how he got there. We don’t see him struggle at all in the movie. Like Whip, Zemekis medicates us with Washington’s acting, getting us high and numb until we get swept up in Whip’s life without ever questioning what this character is actually doing until the credits are done rolling.