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Flight Has Worthwhile Themes, Turbulent Delivery

  • Jeffrey Huston Contributing Writer
  • Updated Apr 16, 2013
<i>Flight</i> Has Worthwhile Themes, Turbulent Delivery

DVD Release Date: February 5, 2013
Theatrical Release Date: November 2, 2012
Rating: R (for drug and alcohol abuse, strong language, sexuality/nudity, and an intense action sequence)
Genre: Drama
Run Time: 139 min
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Cast: Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle, Kelly Reilly, John Goodman, Bruce Greenwood, Melissa Leo

Captain "Sully" Sullenberger became one of our modern-day heroes when he successfully landed the disabled US Airways Flight 1549 into the Hudson River and saved every life onboard. In the days following that "Miracle on the Hudson" we came to learn what a man of integrity he was, to no surprise.

Now imagine if Sullenberger had been a coke-snorting alcoholic, was intoxicated during the crash at twice the legal limit, yet still achieved the same heroic level of success. Through circumstantial and moral complexities, that's the basic scenario Flight posits – which makes for a rather compelling What-If.

Understandably (though somewhat misleadingly) promoted as a thriller of sky-high valor, Flight is actually an examination of addiction. While that promotes values-based themes, and the need to grapple with God specifically, it does so by way of a hard-R honesty that depicts the spiral of addiction – from promiscuous sex and pervasive language, to mixing and taking hard narcotics – in all its squalor. Conservative viewers would champion the film’s message but be too offended to actually see it through.

The film opens by throwing it right in our faces. It’s early morning and Captain “Whip” Whitaker (Denzel Washington, Unstoppable) lays in bed, hung over from the night before, as the young woman he slept with casually walks around their hotel room completely naked. After taking a phone call from his embittered ex, Whip snorts a few lines of coke before heading off to work... piloting a commercial airliner.

He's clearly done this before. This is nothing new. He is unfazed. Whip takes the definition of "Functioning Alcoholic" to a whole new level by being in complete control of his world. He's not trying to make up for his deficiencies; he has a swagger. Then all hell breaks loose – but not because of him.

After a rather turbulent takeoff but subsequent smooth flight, the plane malfunctions in descent and goes into an immediate nosedive. It is a harrowing and extended sequence. Yet rather than being overwhelmed by extreme circumstances compounded by a hangover, Whip rises to the challenge. He is calm, cool, confident, level-headed: a real leader through crisis. One hopes that in any similar real-life scenario he would be so blessed as to have someone as assured and gifted as Whitaker is here; he ends up saving nearly every life onboard.

Instantly he is a national hero, but then the investigation begins. Every detail is scrutizined – including toxicology reports – as airlines, unions, insurers, and manufactureres compete in a high-stakes blame game. Despite Whitaker’s miraculous feat, and the cause no fault of his own, he becomes a likely target on which to lay responsibility. Specifically it’s not right, but fundamentally he’s not innocent.

After a decade-plus diversion into motion capture animated films like The Polar Express, director Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump) comes back to live-action in a riveting return-to-form. He crafts the story with a big-budget polish that never undercuts the material’s grit, and provides Washington a showcase on par with what Zemeckis staged for Tom Hanks in Cast Away. Washington gives a potent portrayal of a man wrestling with demons and losing, his brash exterior fighting to keep shame hidden. Over a legendary career, this will be one of the roles he’s rememebered for.

The incident, along with a possible prison sentence, brings Whitaker’s addictions into focus. Like most addicts, the tragedy initially wakes him up, even to the idea of quitting cold turkey. But also like many addicts that doesn’t last long, and when circumstances look grim he returns to his vices.  At every turn, just when the movie has you rooting for him, it depicts or reveals something so dark and repellent about Whitaker that it basically dares us to keep hoping. It’s an absolute emotional roller-coaster.

The ingenious trick of the whole screenplay is how it creates a competing sense of justice, pitting our desire to see the hero not held responsible for the crash he prevented versus our recognition that his sins are many and need to be exposed. Our hope for the former requires a denial of the latter and it’s nerve-racking. To compound our anxiety, Whitaker resorts to cover-ups rather than honesty, to relapsing rather than being humbled into sobriety. There’s a vicious cycle at play here, one that addicts of any stripe will painfully recognize.

Eventually the matter of God Himself has to be wrestled with, and is. While not going into a deep faith-based depiction, the mixture of addiction and tragedy evoke the instinctive human question, “Where’s God in all this?” It starts with the legal “Act of God” categorization and becomes something more soul-searching. Which is 'The Act of God' here? The lives saved? The deaths? The crash itself? Having Whitaker at the helm? All of it? None of it? These questions come from not merely a need for answers but for control – the very thing addicts lack but are unwilling to admit.

At its core, that’s what Flight is really about – one man’s inability, and fear, to admit he’s lost control. Like any addict, Whitaker believes he can quit whenever he wants. But he can’t. There’s a scene late in the film about a Moment Of Truth decision. What makes it resonate is the hard fact that temptation will always find you. It has a way of sneaking past our firewalls of structure. Even accountability has its limits.

Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda) and Bruce Greenwood (Star Trek) offer solid supporting work as the two men working to exonerate Whitaker despite disgust at his unrepentant conduct. John Goodman (Argo) is welcome comic relief as Whitaker’s pusher and enabler. James Dale Badge steals his one scene as a foul-mouthed terminal cancer patient who's found peace with God, but it’s virtual unknown Kelly Reilly who stands out as a fellow addict; her perfomance is deeply felt and human.

The keen insight Flight ultimately reveals is that the only way to overcome addiction is not through protection; it’s through confession. It’s in that moment, when the lies have finally stopped, that the heart whispers "God help me."


  • Drugs/Alcohol Content: Excessive drinking and alchoholic consumption, drunkenness, throughout (depicted as destructive). Mixing of drinking and drugs. Several instances of smoking. A few scenes of snorting cocaine. One scene of a woman shooting up heroin. A couple of instances of drinking while driving. Characters discuss how to use some illegal drugs to counter the effects of others.
  • Language/Profanity: Full range of profanities, at times pervasive. F-word is used often, as is the S-word, with occasional use of others including two instances of the Lord’s name in vain.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity: Female full-frontal nudity in opening scene, seen a few times. A scene on a porn set. Backsides of nude women seen in background. Male nudity from behind. Another seen of male nudity from behind, but from a hospital robe. A woman lays in bed with nude back exposed. A man and woman kiss passionately as a precursor to sex. A joke is made about porn mags and masturbation. A crude reference to oral sex.
  • Violence/Other: An extended harrowing sequence of a plane crash. Bloody bodies seen in aftermath.

Publication date: November 2, 2012