Flight is Denzel Washington’s latest film, and certainly delivers with exciting scenes, moral/philosophical dilemma, talented acting, and crisp dialogue. Denzel plays commercial airline captain Whip Whitaker, who manages to land a plane when a catastrophic mechanical failure erupts mid-fight. After the emergency crash-landing, he is welcomed as a hero, and we learn that his ability to land the flight was nothing short of a miracle that other veteran pilots are unable to repeat in post-accident simulations.
The balance of the movie focuses on the ravages of Whitaker’s alcoholism and the drug addiction of his love interest Nicole, played by Kelly Reilly. But what starts out as a movie selling itself on an exciting crash sequence and the fallout the hero pilot faces after the crash, quickly turns into an evangelical “born again” mission and the demonizing of favorite conservative boogeymen like the EPA and unions. The movie does not open its heart to the viewer with its Christian faith, it instead hits them over the head with it.
In the opening sequence, we are treated to Whitaker waking up in bed with a naked woman just hours before his doomed flight is scheduled to depart. The woman, flight stewardess Katerina Marquez (played by actress Nadine Velazquez), immediately gets out of bed, and exposes her entire body to the movie audience. Meanwhile, Whitaker takes a call from his estranged wife. As Whitaker ends the contentious phone conversation, Valazquez rolls a joint, and then asks cavalierly if the person on the phone was Whitaker’s wife. Whitaker quickly drinks a beer, does cocaine, and takes a hit from the joint from his still-naked lover. Whitaker, therefore, is introduced as an immoral, drug addled failed parent spending a night with a woman who does not even care whether he is married.
As Whitaker boards the plane, he is greeted by another stewardess who invites him to a church group. Whitaker scoffs at the suggestion and tells her to save “two seats” for him. After the mechanical problems develop mid-flight and Whitaker miraculously regains control of the aircraft during the resultant uncontrollable nose dive from 30,000 feet, he crashes the plane through the spire of a Pentecostal church, and lands in a field adjacent to the church. Pentecostal members, who happen to be praying outside in full garb as the plane crashes nearby, pull Captain Whitaker from the plane wreckage along with most of the crew and passengers. Marquez, however, is killed. Hence, Whitaker crashes through the church spire, in what visually screams out: here I am Lord! The immoral drug addict is then “saved” by the Pentecostal members.
When Whitaker wakes up in a hospital he finds himself in the middle of an NTSB investigation, with his union representative by his side to guide him through what becomes a national news story–almost all of the people onboard survive the impossible crash landing. His union rep reminds him there were 102 “souls” aboard the plane and that 96 survived. The union rep then quickly shows he is only concerned about protecting the union and is willing to do anything to hide Whitaker’s shortcomings. This is a common punching bag for conservatives: the union representative willing to conceal the incompetent, or in this case criminal, conduct of one of his union members.
Whitaker also learns that his blood was drawn after the crash and that a drug test showed him to be high on cocaine and drunk during the flight. His criminal defense lawyer then works to have the evidence suppressed, confidently asserts that his guilty clients “don’t go to jail,” and callously reminds the airline that they face no liability in connection with the death of the flight crew members, it’s a “workers comp” issue, he says. The film hits the scumbag trial lawyer trifecta conservatives love to hate: getting a criminal off, suppressing damning evidence on a technicality, and a morally devoid concern focused on the “liability” of his client.
In the hospital after the plane crash, Whitaker meets his new love interest who is hospitalized after overdosing on heroine. They meet in the stairwell where they both escape to have a smoke. Soon a third person, a young man dying of a rare cancer and in hospital to take chemotherapy, joins them for a smoke. The cancer patient immediately talks about the mysterious ways God works. Whitaker again scoffs at the notion of God having a role in the crash. The cancer patient explains that he would have never asked God for cancer, but God gave it to him for a reason. The cancer patient tells Whitaker that the crash has led him to meet his new love interest Nicole, played by Kelly Reilly. We are patently exposed to the notion that God’s hand was at work when the plane crashed. The notion of God’s plan is reinforced throughout the film in many different ways, but most prominently (ironically) through Whitaker’s lawyer, who repeatedly claims he is fighting to have “act of God” included in the NTSB’s investigation as a possible cause of the crash.
Whitaker’s drug dealer is also introduced at the hospital when he arrives with alcohol, cigarettes and porno magazines. He tells Whitaker that he will never have to buy a drink again (forget the miracle, let’s focus on what you get out of it!), and after insulting the nurse, goes through Whitaker’s medical chart and salivates at the powerful drugs Whitaker is on during his recovery. Without a doubt, the drug dealer, played by the great John Goodman, is yet another godless, immoral character that only corrupts Whitaker with his evil ways.
God is again demonized, this time by the lawyer, when he arrives with Whitaker at the crash scene and subtly mocks the Pentecostal members who now pray outside by the crash site on a daily basis. Soon after, Whitaker himself scoffs at the notion of God once again when he meets with his young co-pilot (who also survived the crash) and his wife. During the entire scene in which Whitaker is visiting his co-pilot, the young wife repeatedly yells out “praise Jesus!” The religious co-pilot who was grievously injured in the crash is enraged by the fact that Whitaker was drunk during the flight, and lashes out at Whitaker from his hospital bed. Whitaker gets up to leave when the co-pilot reaches out to him, in the ultimate Christian act of forgiveness, and admits that he would be dead if not for Whitaker’s piloting, regardless of the drinking. With the crucifix on the wall behind the hospital bed, the co-pilot gives his forgiveness, his wife yells out to Jesus, and the co-pilot asks Whitaker pray with them. Whitaker, who is clearly annoyed by the request, also sees it would be incredibly insulting not to pray with his co-pilot. He prays with them only because he will need the co-pilot on his side during the investigation, and not because he is a believer–not yet, anyway.
Whitaker descends further into the depths of alcoholism and drug addiction as he tries to seek some privacy from the media at his dad’s farm. The farmhouse contains a prominent depiction of the last supper, and the famous picture of praying hands is also displayed in the house–it also appears in at least two different places in the film. At the farm, we also learn Whitaker’s dad was a small business owner who ran a crop dusting company that was, surprise, shut down by the EPA years back. The farm house is Whitaker’s holy refuge, but even there, he knows the cold hand of government regulators can disturb his serene memories of simpler times.
Nicole, who ends up with Whitaker at the farm house, also struggles with her addiction and seeks assistance through Alcoholics Anonymous and counseling. Nicole’s path to sobriety is depicted in a more positive light–her recovery fairs far better in AA than Whitaker’s path. Whitaker’s increasingly out of control alcoholism and drug abuse ultimately lead him to find God–but only after he travels the hardest path of all. This was a real chance for the movie to have an interesting contrast between “treatment” and “faith,” but this idea is never developed in keeping with the movie’s efforts to promote Christian faith while providing the rest of us with some scraps of logical or scientific “outs.”
At the end of the film, Whitaker finally admits his alcoholism and drug abuse at a government hearing. In that moment, he finds God, and talks to God. In Flight, Whitaker is taken through a brutal journey from an alcoholic philanderer to someone saved by (and convinced by) God’s graces and extremely mysterious ways. While we are provided with the cause of the doomed flight, a mechanical failure, the undeniable implication of the film is that God ordained a plane crash, the loss of innocent life, a profound descent into reckless alcohol abuse, and a prison term in order to have Whitaker see the light. Whitaker’s “flight” is signified by his turbulent, deadly, and miraculous ascent to heaven to be closer to God, guided by the angel’s wings on the crown of his captain’s hat.