Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered.
Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
While I kept silence, my body wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
One who gives an honest answer gives a kiss on the lips.
Do not be deceived! This film is a Robert Zemeckis film, but it is not another of those action movies for which he is so famous—regardless of what you might have been led to believe by the trailer. Flight is the equal to such other character-driven films that Denzil Washington has starred in as Remember the Titans, The Hurricane, and Malcolm X. This is not to deny that there is action, and plenty of it, in the thrilling section when the actor’s character Captain Whip Whitaker and two of his crew members are struggling to regain control of an airliner that is plummeting to earth. There are thrills and suspense aplenty in this sequence, but regaining control of the plane is not the point of the movie—Whitaker’s regaining control of his chaotic life is what the film is really about.
What a struggle this is! Our introduction to Whitaker begins in a motel room where he has spent the night drinking and having sex with his stewardess Katerina Marquez (Nadine Velazquez. Now that he needs to get to the airport, he brings himself out of his alcoholic stupor by snorting cocaine. Welcome to the friendly skies wherein you place your life in the hands of a flight captain who is a substance abuser!
In the cockpit Whip’s co-pilot Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty), a much younger man, suspected something was wrong will his chief (who even takes a nap at one point), but when questioned in the hospital after the crash landing, he revealed nothing of his misgivings. He was well aware that his superior’s calm and daring maneuvers during the crisis thousands of feet up had saved his life and that of most of the passengers.
Whip also was injured in the crash, waking up in the hospital room to see his colleague Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood), who informs him that he did save almost everyone by his skills—but, still, six of the passengers and crew had died, so there would be an investigation. One of the victims is his crewmember Katerina. Whip, despite being regarded by the media and the public as a hero, is thus not in the clear. Lawyer Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle) tells Whip that at the crash site, while he was unconscious, medics had drawn blood and discovered that he had been drinking heavily and imbibing cocaine. He could be held liable and sentenced to a long prison sentence. He promises to try to get that report sealed.
As matters grow tenser for Whip, he at first returns to his apartment and empties out all of the bottles and flasks of drinks. It appears that he is turning over a new leaf in his life, but then he sinks back into his old habits. At the hospital he had met Nicole, a recovering alcoholic, and later on the two connect. Evicted from her apartment for nonpayment of rent, she accepts his invitation to stay with him at his deceased father’s farm that he had been trying to sell. Though rundown, it provides a safe haven far from the crowd of news reporters trying to get a story from him. He spends his time refurbishing his father’s old Cessna, the very plane, he tells Nicole, in which he had learned to fly. Because of his frequent drinking Nicole’s worries about him increase. He reluctantly agrees to attend an AA meeting with her, but then gets up and leaves well before the meeting is over. He assures her that he is not an alcoholic, that he can stop any time he wants to. His claim will be put to the test as the time for the inquiry by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) approaches. Although his lawyer does manage to get the blood test locked up, there are many perils ahead, chief of which is his craving for alcohol and the relief it brings him.
People of faith will appreciate the way the film handles issues of morality, especially of “coming to one self” (See Luke 15:17), of choice, and of accepting responsibility. We have come a long way from the days when preachers railed against “demon rum” and drunkards to the place where alcoholism is recognized by virtually everyone as an addiction. It is a disease, but, as this film shows so clearly, this still does not banish morality entirely. There is the matter of what persons do about their addiction.
Also, there is considerable “God talk” in the film, beginning with the hospitalized Whip sharing a smoke in the stairwell with fellow patients Nicole and cancer patient Mark Mellon (Tommy Kane). The latter recognizes Whip from news reports and launches into a discussion about God and his control of the world. He maintains that everything is determined by God and not ourselves.
Co-pilot Ken and his wife also engage Whip in a conversation about God and Jesus, inviting the man, whom they know both saved his life and perhaps at the same time endangered everyone by his abuse of alcohol and drugs, to “accept Jesus.” Also there is a church in the film, one that we see from above. It is a small white-framed Pentecostal church at the edge of the field where Whip hopes to crash land the plane on its belly. The people are outside gathered around a pond where the pastor is conducting a baptismal service. One wing knocks the top part of the steeple off as the plane passes over. The people stand in shock as they watch the plane crash into the field. Then they rush forward, becoming first responders helping the passengers and crew to escape the fire. Much of this is shown via home video clips, apparently shot by one of the parishioners on a camcorder or cell phone.
Director Robert Zemeckis and his writer John Gatins have combined well the thriller and the lost/redemption genres into a riveting suspense film. Part of their skill is in making the second half of the film just as suspenseful as the action-packed struggle to keep the airliner from crashing. The tensest scene of all is the close up shot of a small liquor bottle taken from a motel refrigerator. For what seems like a very long time the camera focuses on the bottle, and then…Wow, what an achievement to make an immobile object the focal point of so much suspense!
I love it when a film exceeds my expectations, as this one certainly does. I have read of some viewers, obviously action fans, who have been disappointed because the trailer led them to believe this would be an action film. Being forewarned, I hope, will help prepare you to appreciate this for the fine film that it is.
There is a spoiler in the last half of these questions, so I strongly urge you to set them aside until you see the film.
1. What did you think of Whip in the first part of the film? Not the most responsible person, is he? How would you describe him? What apparently has happened to his relationship with his former wife and his son? Despite his addiction and refusal to deal with it, what trace of decency do we see in him?
2. What do you think of Nicole at first? How is she more responsible than her benefactor?
3. What do you think of John Goodman’s Harly Mays? We laugh at him and are glad when he helps his friend, but how might he be an enabler for Whipp?
4. What do you think of cancer patient Mark’s view of God and that he was meant to have cancer, just as they were meant to meet in
the stairwell, and Whipp was meant to land the plane safely? What is this type of theology called? How is it comforting (at least for Mark); and yet do you think there is a danger of denying that we have free will or choice in events? How have you dealt with the age-old debate between determinism and free will (such as the 18/19th century controversy between Calvinists and Methodists)?
5. How does the evangelical faith of Ken and his wife affect their view of Whip? Why do you think they have such ambivalent feelings about him? Do you share this?
6. How did you feel when Whipp returned to his apartment and threw out all of his liquor and beer? Why was this not enough to prevent him from drinking again? What does he continually deny? Why is the acceptance of one’s addiction, central to all 12-Step programs, necessary for coping successfully with it? (A similar struggle between denial and acceptance can be seen in the case of death row inmate Matthew Poncelet in Dead Man Walking.)
7. How did you feel when Whip was alseep in his motel room and got up to investigate the banging noise? When you saw the small liquor bottle in close up, what did you think? Did you find yourself wanting to say out loud, “Don’t do it, “or “Walk away” ? How was this shot perhaps the most suspenseful scene in the film—at least up to the point in the hearing?
8. How did you feel when Harly is summoned to help his friend sober up? (Note that there’s a similar scene in Broadway Danny Rose, though there it is played for comedy.) Did you want them to get away with their scheme to fool the Board? Or were you also conflicted by your moral sense?
9. How did you feel and think when NTSB agent Ellen Block revealed that a failed part in the plane’s tail that the maintenance crew had neglected caused the plane to go out of control? Does this fact remove from Whip any guilt concerning his substance abuse? Did you think he would get away with his scheme? What changed his mind? He could have kept quiet about the two small empty vodka bottles and stayed with his first answers. He might have rationalized that Katerina is dead and so her being blamed for drinking the vodka would have done no harm (or would it?). Why do you think he decided to tell the truth? What does this reveal about his sense of decency? Compare him to Cain in Genesis 4:9.
10. How is Whip a changed person in the last scene? What does he mean when he says that he now feels that he is free? How is this far more important than any physical freedom? If he had not acted as he did at the NTSB hearing, would he have felt free? How is the ending a working out of Psalm 32? Do you see any connection between the baptismal scene and the eventual redemption of Whip’s character?