Flight portrays a balancing act for alcoholics and other flawed human beings

maureen

Flight was tough to watch. Denzel Washington’s Whip was a believable, heartbreaking drunk. Denial and rationalization are hallmarks of addiction and Whip is a master. His careful, studied movements suggest the perception of control that is not there. Most drunks are certain they aren’t that drunk. Most drunks are pretty sure they are functional until they hit the floor. Whatever grand deed he may have accomplished, Whip is just like most drunks.

Whip’s skillful landing of the defective aircraft does not make him a hero. He is the same flawed, self-absorbed guy after the crash as he is before, in other words, human. After the crash Whip experiences a brief moment of reality when he is afraid he will be found out, but once he’s comfortable that his addiction will stay hidden he picks up the bottle again. Whip’s girlfriend Nicole injecting heroin after she’s been told not to inject is another scene that punctuates the power of addiction. Addicts are after a feeling and are willing to take whatever risks necessary to arrive at that feeling, and to tell whatever lies are necessary to protect themselves so they can feel that way again.

Whip uses cocaine as a balancing agent to the alcohol. For Whip the cocaine use adds more fuel to the lie of functionality. In any case Whip may be functional enough to crash land a plane drunk, but his relationships cannot survive his alcoholism.

The pilot’s union is doing a balancing act as well, sending in a corporate lawyer to kill evidence that Whip was flying drunk. The airline is complicit in the cover-up. They want to avoid lawsuits and play on the great PR Whip’s heroic landing affords. So Whip is instructed not to drink and not to be seen drinking. Drunk or sober, he must continue to lie about his drinking. It’s not that his friends in the industry don’t care about Whit, but self-interest figures into the equation.

The question of God shows up when Whit, Nicole and a cancer patient meet on the stairs. He raises the question of whether God deliberately deals us our hands and whether meeting one another is chance at all. Are cancer patients and addicts given their unique challenges for some cosmic reason? Is the outcome of an event such as a plane crash or cancer in the realm of human control? Are the people who cross our paths heaven sent? Whip’s lawyer brings up yet another God question when he petitions to have “act of God” added to the causes of the crash. While weather is a factor, are mechanical failures or shoddy maintenance practices also “acts of God”, as the cancer patient suggests?

The answers seem to be a balancing act as well. Whit and Nicole impact one another’s lives for good and for ill, based on the choices each makes. The idea that we do have control over whether we choose truth over lies, and recovery over addiction, seems to be the heart of the movie. Yet Whip’s journey also suggests that the people we encounter along the way may be key influencers in the choices we make. Flight carries a subtly redemptive message that suggests God is involved, but doesn’t nail down the details.

After a long, awesome crash sequence, Whip lands the plane in a field where a church is holding a baptism. They immediately render aid to the victims, and afterwards people from the church show up at the crash site every day to pray. One of the stewardesses and a co-pilot are church-goers. They refuse to give Whit a pass on his alcoholism, though neither is willing to go public with what they know, and both come off a bit sanctimonious. The co-pilots’ wife made me cringe. Her whole demeanor and stereotypical “praise Jesus” detracted from the scene in the hospital in which the co-pilot prays with Whip. His prayer had the potential for greater power and impact had she not been like that. Maybe that was the point. It takes some balance to tell the truth about sin and redemption without being judgmental, to be faithful without being religious, and to love without lies or fear.

Flight made me wonder what else human beings do to try and balance out failures. Do we let the fact that we manage to fulfill our obligations, perhaps even skillfully, delay the inevitable showdown we need to have with ourselves? Do we avoid open confrontation with God because our denials and rationalizations can’t stand up to His truth?

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