Directed by Robert Zemeckis, Flight is up for two Oscar nominations this year – Best Actor (Denzel Washington) and Best Original Screenplay (John Gatins). While Washington is outstanding as booze-swilling, coke-sniffing, anti-hero pilot Whip Whitaker, his performance is nonetheless hindered by a screenplay that desperately seeks moral approval from the audience. Until the final 15 minutes, the film is tolerable enough, but the ending is so repulsive, that those who do not judge films based on whether there’s a moral lesson to be had will have discovered their time wasted.
Whip is an alcoholic airline pilot who uses cocaine to even himself out while he’s flying planes. He’s also one of the best pilots anyone’s ever seen. The movie opens with him waking up in a hotel room with one of the flight attendants from his crew, Katerina Marquez (Nadine Velazquez), at which point he has a drink and blows some cocaine before showing up to work that day.
After a turbulent, but skillfully-handled takeoff in inclement weather, Whip makes himself a screwdriver before catching some Zs while his newbie country-bumpkin Christian co-pilot Ken (Brian Geraghty) takes the helm. Whip awakens to trouble due to a mechanical failure that sends the plane into a vertical dive.
Once again, Whip navigates the plane through trouble, even inverting the craft before making a successful effort to glide it to an emergency landing. Of 102 people on board, six die, including Katerina. Afterward, the investigatory arm of the National Transportation Safety Board recreates the scenario in a flight simulation with 10 different pilots. All 10 fail to replicate Whip’s feat, and in each simulation, all 102 people died.
It suffices to say that Whip faces all the scrutiny of a serial killer when it becomes suspected that he had been drinking and doing drugs that day. What follows for the rest of the film is an exercise in Twilight Zone-level absurdity embodied by a perfectly bizarre exchange involving Whip and his hospitalized co-pilot, Ken, who is angry at Whip for reeking of booze the day of the flight – a totally understandable feeling. But the scene takes a turn for the farcical when Whip asks Ken if he thinks he’d be alive if it weren’t for him. Ken replies that everyone would be dead if it had been anyone other than Whip flying the plane, but that nonetheless Whip wasn’t in prime condition to fly. And that’s why Ken’s so gosh-darn angry with him.
Of course, nobody wants to fly on a plane piloted by a drunk. Then again, if Whip Whitaker actually existed, it’d be difficult not to want him at the helm of your plane – drunk and high or not, since even in that state he makes Sully Sullenberger look like an amateur.
The movie concludes with Whip testifying before the NTSB. He’s almost in the clear — all but exonerated from disciplinary action and criminal charges — until for some reason, he reveals that he was in fact drunk and high during the flight, and that he’s drunk right now during the hearing!
As a result, Whip goes to prison, where he is able to mend a broken relationship with his son, and tells a group of prison alcoholics that even though he’s in prison, he’s now free.
The “moral” of this story is hard to escape: it is better to be sober, ordinary, and dead, than drunk, troubled, and alive along with everyone else whose lives you just saved.
Flight typifies the American mindset when it comes to analyzing cinema and works of fiction and literature in general. H.L. Mencken adeptly observed this phenomenon nearly 100 years ago in his masterful essay, “Puritanism as a Literary Force.” Americans judge works of art, not on aesthetic qualities or in terms of originality, but based on whether they convey the right – that is to say “conventional” — moral lesson:
"Naturally enough, this moral obsession has given a strong colour to American literature. In truth, it has coloured it so brilliantly that American literature is set off sharply from all other literatures. In none other will you find so wholesale and ecstatic a sacrifice of aesthetic ideas, of all the fine gusto of passion and beauty, to notions of what is meet, proper and nice … The literature of the nation, even the literature of the enlightened minority, has been under harsh Puritan restraints from the beginning, and despite a few stealthy efforts at revolt — usually quite without artistic value or even common honesty, as in the case of the cheap fiction magazines and that of smutty plays on Broadway, and always very short-lived — it shows not the slightest sign of emancipating itself today. The American, try as he will, can never imagine any work of the imagination as wholly devoid of moral content. It must either tend toward the promotion of virtue, or be suspect and abominable."
And that, in a nutshell is the problem with Flight. Some members of the faithful like to say that god is everywhere. Well, in this film he certainly is. From Whip’s wounded plane clipping a church steeple, to him thanking god while in prison, god is an unsung co-star in this messy cinematic sermon, which unfortunately consumes more than twice as much time as a typical church service.