As to myself, I openly confess, that I should not wish “Free-will” to be granted me, even if it could be so, nor anything else to be left in my own hands, whereby I might endeavour something towards my own salvation. And that, not merely because in so many opposing dangers, and so many assaulting devils, I could not stand and hold it fast, (in which state no man could be saved, seeing that one devil is stronger than all men;) but because, even though there were no dangers, no conflicts, no devils, I should be compelled to labour under a continual uncertainty, and to beat the air only. Nor would my conscience, even if I should live and work to all eternity, ever come to a settled certainty, how much it ought to do in order to satisfy God. For whatever work should be done, there would still remain a scrupling, whether or not it pleased God, or whether He required any thing more; as is proved in the experience of all justiciaries, and as I myself learned to my bitter cost, through so many years of my own experience. —Martin Luther, On the Bondage of the Will (1525) (from today’s “Daily Luther“)
Who’s in control of your life? What does that even mean in the face of natural catastrophes, chemical addictions, genetic diseases, and “acts of God”? Can we really be responsible in any meaningful way when there are forces so vast, so powerful that they can upend even out best-laid plans and intentions?
Everyone wants to save Captain William “Whip” Whittaker (Denzel Washington). His Christian colleagues. His lawyer. His union. His new heroin-addicted girlfriend, Nicole (Kelly Reilly). Everyone sees a man in need.
Except of course Whip: a pilot of hidden talents with a bad drinking problem. So bad that he flies commercial jets drunk. In fact, the very morning he takes up a bum plane that starts falling apart in the sky, he’s had a few — not only the night before, and that morning — but during the flight itself.
Doesn’t matter. Whip manages to roll the plane, literally flip it upside down, thus slowing its descent long enough to find an open field in which to set it down, saving 96 of the 102 souls onboard.
Someone’s got to pay for those six goners, though. Despite the blandishments of his coke dealer and buddy Harling (John Goodman), to the effect that he is a hero who will never have to buy his own drinks again, a toxicology report is aiming to put the blame for the crash on Whip, forget the rather obvious black-box-corroborated maintenance or manufacturer failure.
How can the man save his skin? If he owns up to the booze, he’s done. If he lies, and his lawyer can scotch a tox report on technicalities, even though it reveals a blood-alcohol level high enough to kill Sasquatch, he’s free.
In fact, everyone’s more than willing to blame someone else. First and foremost God. Whip’s Christian copilot, a pasty-faced Born Againer with all the personality of a dead salmon, sees both the crash and the serious injuries he has sustained as “predestined” by God. And Whip’s lawyer is working to get “act of God” literally written into the final findings of the investigation.
Although the Georgian good ole boy who owns the airline thinks Whip’s to blame, he’s more than willing to write some checks to whoever just to finally be rid of a business he didn’t want anyway. The manufacturer wants to blame the airline for negligent maintenance. Finally, the pilots’ union wants to blame anybody but one of their own.
Everyone seems to know exactly who’s in control, who’s responsible. All Whip knows is that it’s not him. No one could have landed that plane the way he did. And as for his drinking: “I choose to drink.” He can stop when he wants. No matter the funky cards he is dealt, Captain Whip is still in charge.
Except not really. He hasalienated his ex-wife and son, whom he embraces with such ferocity that it can only be interpreted as frustrated aggression. He’s managed to scare off his new girlfriend, determined to kick her heroin addiction via the 12 Steps and refusing to be pulled further downward by Whip’s self-denial. His lawyer has nothing but contempt for his arrogance and ingratitude for all that’s being done on his behalf. The only friend he has left is his dealer, and that’s because Harling also lives in an alternate reality in which the right lies and a white coke line make all the bad stuff disappear.
It’s not until Whip is pulled before the National Transportation Safety Board to testify as to the events of that morning that salvation is at hand. All he has to do is pass the buck down the line one more time — the airline, the manufacturer, God, a crew member he was sleeping with but who died in the crash — and he’s free.
Beautifully crystallized in a single clarifying crisis of conscience is the “Come to Jesus” moment when Whip realizes he must choose between the devil he knows and the Truth that can set him free. But even then, even his choosing is the act of a bound man.
Denzel Washington is showing his age a bit. He’s getting a little pudgy, a little stoop shouldered, a little baggy eyed. But man is he maturing into new roles. He is fantastic as the cocked-up pilot with preternatural gifts. He’s a passed-out drunk drunk who won’t admit what he knows is the truth. He’s also the greatest pilot any commercial airline has probably ever suited up. He’s a loser. And a champion. He’s a sinner. And a saint. And Washington, as he did so compellingly in his Oscar-winning role in Training Day, grabs you by the scruff of the neck and takes you on a flight with both. I don’t think Washington has ever given a dull, just-for-the-payday performance. I’m always interested in what he’s going to do next.
John Goodman provides some broad comic relief as the giddy, slightly mad supplier, flown in, apparently, from a Coen Bros movie. And Don Cheadle brings the necessary sobriety to the fantastic scenario as a Chicago lawyer whose “clients don’t go to jail.” (Another man who is convinced he’s in control of the situation.)
The Christian copilot Ken (Brian Geraghty), who in a lesser film would have been the last-minute key to Whip’s case, is the two-dimensional, glassy-eyed “Praise Jesus” cartoon you’d expect from a Hollywood film, but he and his TBN-walk-on robo-wife are stand-ins for the “God did this” theology of human tragedy. “Whose God would do this?” Whip asks as he surveys the crash scene with his lawyer. Oh, you’d be surprised.
In the end, Flight confronts us with the task of reconciling all those things outside our control and our personal responsibility. What can we reasonably control? How can we be culpable if we’re not really responsible? If the will isn’t free — then why does anyone find fault?
Flight isn’t a great film. The boozer-in-denial scenario is not particularly original or illuminating. And there are some holes in this story that could have used some stopping. I also find it hard to believe that no one would have played the race card, even as an opening gambit. The film may not have been written with Denzel Washington in mind, but once cast, this is Georgia.
Another nagging omission is the question of Whip’s raw talent. At the end of The Right Stuff a reporter asks the cocky Gordon Cooper, “Who’s the best pilot you ever saw?” Everyone knows the answers to that question: Chuck Yeager, the man who broke the sound barrier but who was deemed unfit to represent the USA in space because he didn’t have a college degree. But Cooper lies, and says: “I’m the best pilot I ever saw.”
In Flight, someone asks Whip, “Who are you?” Whip is at a loss. But he shouldn’t be. He’s the best pilot to ever fly a commercial airliner. But all anyone can see is the booze and his battle to come to terms with it. (Of course, the only terms that kind of drinking ever offers are “I surrender.”) But Whip’s gifts as a pilot are as much an act of divine Providence as any plane going down—not merely some trick he pulls, like being able to fake being sober when in fact he’s drunk. Yet this is completely lost sight of by film’s end.
Nevertheless, Flight is a thoughtful and entertaining film, which is rare enough. Just like flipping a plane 180 degrees to make sure it lands right-side up.
*Warning: The film opens with some full-frontal nudity that, if the film had been in 3D, would probably have constituted an act of infidelity for some. And the language is very crude at times.