Flight explores the question of whether the selfless accomplishment of a valiant act is diminished if the hero is deeply flawed. Denzel Washington plays airline pilot William ‘Whip ’Whitaker. We first see him passed out in a hotel room after an apparent night of partying. Awakened by the incessant high-pitched ringing of a cell phone, Whip answers.
He’s not alone in the room. There’s a beautiful half-naked woman gathering articles of clothing and lighting a joint. The phone call turns tense quickly, and it becomes obvious it’s from his ex or estranged wife. He takes a long swallow from a can of flat beer on the nightstand and finishes his conversation with apparently neither party satisfied with the outcome. The woman offers him a hit off her joint, and he is lured out of bed by lines of cocaine on a nearby table. After a good inhale, he’s upright and ready for his 9AM flight.
It’s stormy and the flight starts bumpy and deteriorates into some of the most adrenaline-inducing and realistic moments on an airplane that I’ve ever seen captured on film. Through it all, Whip is calm and collected. The plane is falling apart and a still intoxicated Whip manages to land in a field—in a fantastic fashion—and save all but four passengers and two members of the crew.
When Whip wakes in the hospital, he’s greeted by a familiar face. The man’s name is Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood), and he speaks in awe of Whip’s abilities praising him for saving a lot of lives. Whip’s first question is how many of the 102 people on board survived to which Charlie responds 96-four civilians and two of the flight crew died. Whip’s companion the morning of the crash was a flight attendant he called Trina (Nadine Velazquez). His concern for her safety is obvious when he inquiries which crew members. Charlie explains there is a protocol that must be followed. The National Transportation Safety Board ‘NTSB’ has to be the first to officially make contact with him.
It appears Charlie is just there to serve as a comforting a familiar presence. There is nobody else in the room; no family; no concerned friends.
The room fills with doctors, nurses and agents from the NTSB. The witch hunt has begun. Every bit of information relayed to Whip and every statement he makes is recorded. Again, Whip inquires which members of the crew died, and he learns that Trina did perish. It turns out Charlie Anderson is his union’s rep and will be the contact between Whip and the NTSB. Charlie and Whip used to fly together at another airline. He offers to call Whip’s ex-wife, but Whip says he’ll contact them. Tears have started to stream down his face. Is he crying for Trina or for all the injured and deceased or just as an emotional release after a traumatic experience? Maybe he’s crying because the room is empty except for one old colleague.
After leaving the hospital, Whip flees to a safe haven, a small farmhouse that belonged to his father and his grandfather before him. The extent of Whip’s drinking problem is brought to light as he empties alcohol bottles and beer cans stripping the house of all temptation. He even disposes of all his prescription pain killers. Initially, it seems that he has taken this crash as a sign to change his ways. Who can walk away from a near-death experience, unchanged? A more cynical mind may just assume that he’s covering his tracks.
Also, Whips desire to cocoon himself is unthinkable in a society where most people are eager to capitalize on fame and notoriety. Other than watching intermittent news stories about the crash, Whip has distanced himself.
The one thing Whip can’t run from is the investigation of the crash. Try as he might to curl himself into an invisible ball, as the pilot he has accountability. Whip meets with Charlie and a union attorney named Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle). Whip questions Lang’s presence to which he responds, “Death demands responsibility. Six dead on that plane, someone has to pay.” Whip explains that the plane just fell apart at 30,000 feet. Charlie says that of course the airline will try to prove equipment failure which lays the responsibility at the feet of the manufacturer. Of course, the manufacturer will try to prove poor maintenance.
Then Hugh adds that they will also go after the pilot. These are the words that Whip has been dreading but certainly expecting to hear. He grows defensive; because he truly believes the plane crash was not his fault but realizes that his mental and physical states are going to be under scrutiny. He finds out from Lang that blood, hair and skin samples were collected from him at the crash site. His toxicology reports prove he had alcohol as well as cocaine in his system and that this alone could mean serving jail time. If the NTSB is able to prove Whip was in anyway responsible for the deaths of the passengers, he could be facing manslaughter charges and life in prison.
It’s at this point that Charlie’s life starts to spiral out of control. He tries to absolve himself by saying “They put me in a broken plane.” He stumbles through the next few days in an alcohol induced haze. As the investigation continues, there’s no doubt that there was a problem with the plane or the crash could be classified as “an act of God”. However, even with Lang working to make sure Whip is acquitted of any blame, Whip is frightened and this fear manifests itself in self-destructive behavior. Even if he walks away from the investigation free and clear; he’s still guilty.
Whip Whitaker saved 96 people yet, he still did something wrong, and he is a shell of a human being until he is able to admit that mistake to himself and everyone else. One good deed cannot begin to absolve a lifetime of poor choices: being a crappy husband and an absentee father, being arrogant and reckless with other people’s lives, drinking and taking drugs, so he could manage to get up every day and look in the mirror. Maybe those tears in the hospital immediately following the crash were because he didn’t feel as if he deserved to survive. If, on the morning of the crash, Whip had been clean and sober, is it possible that he could have saved those other six people?
The special features include three featurettes: “Origins of Flight”, “The Making of Flight”, and “Anatomy of a Plane Crash”. In the first short, writer John Gatins, explains that the idea for the screenplay came from his experience on a commercial flight several years before. He was sitting next to a pilot who kept trying to engage him in conversation. The writer said it annoyed him, and he couldn’t figure out why. “And then it dawned on me, I don’t want to know any commercial pilot. I want to believe that the guy that gets in that chair has it all going,” Gatins states. Another interesting piece of information is that the film’s director, Robert Zemeckis, is a pilot.
The second film is self-explanatory. The actors discuss their process and how the director guided the project. These types of extras don’t add much to the film, since they are pretty much self-congratulatory love stories to everyone involved in the movie. The piece does provide some technical insight about the construction of the aircraft and creating an airline and its brand from scratch, since they couldn’t use any existing airlines. This would imply to audiences that an existing company had faulty equipment.
The third featurette explores the intricacies of the crash. Zemeckis states that they drew from multiple events over the past few years. There is also a Q&A Panel mediated by a staff member of the Los Angeles Times. Denzel Washington is missing due to illness which is a big disappointment.