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Addict and hero: Denzel Washington, flying under the influence

Denzel Washington, “Flight”

Trailers for the new “Denzel Washington flick,” Flight, directed by Robert Zemeckis, are quite vivid on the plane crash disaster part of the film, and coyly vague about everything else. As a result, I halfway expected it to start off like a typical Hollywood disaster flick, ramping up happily to an airborne, warp-speed Poseidon Adventure. It doesn’t quite, though. Instead, it starts off with a scene of extreme morning-after debauchery, with pilot Whip Whittaker (Washington) coming to, basically, to the sound of an alarm clock summoning him to his job, which on this day is to fly a jet airliner with “102 souls on board” to Atlanta. He’s in a hotel room with naked Trina Marquez (Nadine Velazquez), who looks maybe like a high-class hooker but turns out later to be a crew member. The two are flat-out hammered; no, make that severely hammered. Whittaker does a couple of lines of coke to get the old battery started, and shows up only an hour or so later to take the captain’s seat in the cockpit.

The mid-air part of the drama is riveting. The flight from hell is based loosely on Alaska Airlines Flight 261, which went down off the coast of Santa Barbara in 2000. That crash involved a mid-air mechanical failure followed by a sudden dive, with a doomed attempt to halt the dive. In Flight, something similar goes wrong with the plane at 30,000 ft., sending it into a terrifying nosedive. The seasoned Whittaker does the impossible: in a spectacular sequence he halts the dive by putting the plane into a roll and flies it briefly upside-down to stabilize it, landing the plane in a field, and saving 96 of the 102 passengers on board. Just to make sure we don’t miss the miraculous nature of the feat, at the last moment Whittaker manages to mostly avoid a church and a number of churchgoers out on the lawn for a baptism, clipping just the very tip of the steeple with one of the plane’s massive wings.

The film also refers loosely to another more famous recent aviation event, US Airways Flight 1549, which in January 2009 hit a flock of geese on takeoff from LaGuardia. The dramatic afternoon landing on the icy Hudson River off Manhattan by Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger later became known as “the Miracle on the Hudson.” All 155 people on board got off safely, and Sully is now remembered not just for the event itself, but for his unassuming professionalism and his community-minded personal character as well. In the film, Whittaker’s buddy, Harling Mays (John Goodman) refers to this indirectly, and inadvertently suggests what a different story this one will be, when he congratulates Whittaker in the hospital and says “You’re a ROCK STAR. You’re never going to have to pay for another drink in your life!”

The story of the crash and the events leading up to it occupies only the first third of the film, though we see it later on news clips, at the NTSB hearing, in YouTube footage and the like. What happens in the second two thirds, however, has a great deal more to do with that opening scene of debauchery than it does with any plane crash. In focusing on Whip’s severe substance abuse problem, Flight takes its place as one of perhaps two dozen films I can think of, going back at least to Days of Wine and Roses, that are primarily about alcoholism – or more precisely, about the process of hitting rock bottom and making (or failing to make) the turn into recovery.

There’s a lot of cross-cutting during that first third, between the Whittaker narrative and a parallel but initially unrelated story of Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a porn-era version of the hooker with a heart of gold. Nicole suffers a major heroin overdose and turns up in a hospital where, just after the plane crash, the two paths cross for a time. Nicole goes on to get clean and sober; Whip’s story is more complicated.

Whittaker, through nearly the entire film, is an absolute train-wreck of a human being, with a broken family in his wake and a single “friend” left in the world: his drug-dealing neighbor Harling Mays, played by a scenery-chewing Goodman, who first appears coming down the hospital hallway in Bermuda shorts, sunglasses, and a ponytail, with “Sympathy for the Devil” going in his headphones, looking like he just parachuted in from Barton Fink. Even Hugh Lang, Whittaker’s union-assigned lawyer-in-a-$3,000-suit, played by a somewhat miscast Don Cheadle, calls him a miserable scumbag to his face. In the glare of the spotlight and in the face of an extremely high-stakes legal drama that commences after he leaves the hospital, Whittaker struggles, and fails, to clean himself up.

Denzel Washington’s portrayal of the alcoholic Whip is a powerhouse acting job, really the anchor for the film. His depiction of a man drowning in his own despicable powerlessness is harrowing, and sets the bar for this particular kind of actor’s challenge at a very high level. It’s rather a stand-alone performance, of course, as the story is all Whittaker’s. Supporting roles are solid, though, with the possible exceptions being the curiosities of the over-the-top Goodman and the icy Cheadle, neither of whom are quite believable.

Flight explores one of the more interesting contradictions posed by addicts and addiction, the notion that a person can be clearly in a state of “impaired ability,” and, at the same time, capable of extraordinary feats of skill and creativity. The idea that such things are possible is, of course, one of the ways addicts rationalize their behavior: “I play better when I’m stoned.” Generally that’s self-delusion, and to a degree it infects the thinking of addicts and alcoholics of both greater and lesser abilities. The problem that the film dramatizes, and that bedevils Whittaker, is that sometimes, maybe one in a million, it can be true.

Or so says the movie. The myth has persistence. Across a huge swath of 20th Century American literature, especially the middle half, virtually every major writer was an alcoholic. In fact, it’s hard to name one from that era who wasn’t. The idea that two-fisted, manly drinking somehow contributed to the quality of what they produced is the stuff of legend. Faulkner, for example, said something to the effect, paraphrasing, that all he really needed to write was a room, a typewriter, cigars, and whiskey. Some of his biggest, most innovative novels were essentially written in two to three week binges of constant drinking. And yet, on closer examination, the “innovative” prose of those works, which academics tend to describe as “difficult,” is often so garbled and overwrought as to be incomprehensible.

Whittaker, too, subscribes to that myth. In his case, the grandeur of his self-assessment, which is a flight of another kind altogether, is based on a real achievement, a heroic feat of flying. It’s also fed steadily by everyone around him, however, which morphs into a sycophantic kind of enabling. Even Lang, his lawyer, in one breath calls him a despicable scumbag and then in the next says, “I am in awe of you, what you did up there.”

Inevitably, Whittaker sucks nearly everyone around him into the enabling dynamic, including his flight crew, two of whom have died in the crash. His co-pilot, Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty), who survives but will probably never walk again, who knew from the start of the flight that Whittaker “reeked of … gin, or something,” and that the flight was doomed, punts on the hard question by taking refuge in his fundamentalist religious beliefs, the equally powerful delusion that it was all, both bad and good, ordained and planned somehow by God. Even Lang the lawyer and Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood), the pilot’s union rep, are sucked into the enabling act to an absolutely incredible degree that I will not spoil for you here.

The bottom, the moment of literal truth for Whittaker, when the denial and rationalization and self-delusion finally become unsustainable, comes in the NTSB hearing. In a really remarkable transitional shot at the conclusion of Whittaker’s testimony, when he finally tells the truth, the camera holds on an extreme close-up of Washington’s face, and then begins a slow pan around him. As it does so, we hear his own voiceover in the distance and eventually see him speaking, but now he’s not in the hearing, not in a suit.  It’s much later, he’s in prison garb, and he’s 14 months into a 4-5 year term. Whittaker’s final monologue is in a jailhouse A.A. meeting and he’s addressing a group of inmates.

It’s an enormous tribute to Washington to say that his prison monologue is the first fully believable depiction of a recovering alcoholic speaking at an A.A. meeting that I’ve ever seen on film, across many “recovery” films. It stands in contrast even to a similar scene earlier in this film, when Nicole brings Whip to a meeting.  That one, like every A.A. meeting scene in every other recovery movie I’ve seen, just doesn’t work. Whether the difficulty is in scriptwriting or acting or both, no one ever quite seems to get it right. In Flight, capping a powerful performance that drives the film as a whole, Denzel Washington just nails it.