The Morals, Religion & Alcoholic Heroism of Robert Zemeckis' 'Flight'
by Tyler Wantuch
December 13, 2012
With the Awards Season heating up, now seems like a decent time to dig deeper into Flight. Director Robert Zemeckis pitches a curveball in his first live-action film in a while, testing the limits of what an audience can take in watching an alcoholic fail over and over. Whip Whitmore (Denzel Washington) is the worst kind of human being on film since Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) in Young Adult. Both seem to be self-centered shells of people, but whereas Young Adult threw no lifeline for the entirety of the film, Zemeckis opens with a moral question that casts a shadow on our interpretation of Whip. Continued below.
Warning: If you haven't seen Flight yet, there's plenty of spoilers abound.
How much leeway can we give a hero? By managing a miracle of a crash landing, our protagonist becomes legendary. Yet, for the remainder of the film his actions are nearly unforgivable. The filmmakers seem to understand that Whitmore's ability to remain calm under pressure and his high level of skill can give a character a lot of room for other failures. Time and time again he brushes with disaster, making immoral choices all while believing the outcomes were due to fate or acts of God. His actions raise important questions about our own morality and belief in lost causes. Flight is not some tragic tale of a misunderstood hero nor is it a warning against the cruel realities of addiction. Instead, it is a meditation on excuses. It's a horrific example of how we as humans are willing to overlook faults for questionable reasons.
How many mistakes will an audience forgive? How much forgiveness can be given to a man who is constantly putting his own life and others' lives in danger? These are the questions that Zemeckis is pushing to the limit. Throughout the film we are bombarded with moral contradictions: cancer patients smoking, harassing the ones you love, doing lines of cocaine to fend off drunkenness before flying a plane. These are things we know are wrong, but the film gives an excuse for each of these misdeeds. The cancer patient is on his deathbed; what's the difference if he smokes? Whip harasses his family not because he is a mean drunk, but because he was looking for support anywhere he could find it. More importantly, the cocaine Whip uses before the infamous flight was necessary to save the innocent passengers.
With each passing excuse for immoral behavior we become robots of giving passes. Our mindset of morality has shifted allowing blatant immoral choices to roll off our main character. When Whip finally stops the lies and owns up to his own wrong doings, we realize the film has tricked us. There are always excuses for a person's poor choices, but his actions actually define his morality. So, in order to find the morality in Flight we must strip away the excuses and take a look at Whip's actions.
In fact, the film only puts Whitmore in two situations where he must take action. The first is behind the yoke on the fateful day of the crash. The other is in front of the NTBS board where he must plead his innocence. These two scenes parallel each other in nearly every way. Both start with a drunken night that forces him to use cocaine in the morning to "take the edge off." Then a sunglasses toting Whip calmly and coolly performs perfectly under the influence. Whether it's keeping the plane in air or disregarding his own conscience with lies, he does it with style. In both cases Whip succeeds. He lands the plane saving more than half the passengers, and in the courtroom he tells the truth - saving himself.
The brilliance of this parallel is that the viewers' emotional desires are consistent with Whip's. We want him to land the plane safely. We want him to successfully lie in court and get back up in the air. However, our wish in the latter scene is for an outcome that wouldn't better Whip morally or emotionally. Allowing an addict to pilot planes is a disturbing thought, but I will admit I fell for it. I wanted him to tarnish the reputation of the flight attendant, Katerina (played by Nadine Velazquez), and save his own. This compromise (but he saved people!) makes the audience's morality waiver. We are no longer judging Whip's decisions by our own moral codes, but rather by the filmmakers intentions.
Intentions that rely heavily on the ideas of fate and God, which are discussed in multiple scenes. An act of God, for a time, is blamed for the plane crash; the co-pilot is deeply spiritual and the plane nearly lands into a congregation of God-fearing people. Zemeckis didn't suddenly find religion; his purpose was carefully aimed. Both fate and God are reasons why things did or didn't go a certain way. Even the harshest judge of Whip's actions, the co-pilot Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty), will excuse his actions because of fate and God. The audience knows Ken has every reason to lay into Whip for his indiscretions. The film even adds weight to his words with Ken being unable to walk or fly again. You can almost feel Whip succumb to the shame and guilt. But, just it always does, the film pulls the rug out from underneath the viewer. The co-pilot and his wife let him off the hook. They prayed on it, and God told them it was all meant to be because Whip was meant to save the day. Here are two very religious and angry people who forgive Whip of his mistakes and let him escape for free. Whip is once again not held accountable because his actions are explained away by fate. It's another cop out. Again we find a reason for Whip to continue his addiction. When everything is plotted out, why would he take action?
The film is not fatalistic, though. In fact it's the exact opposite. The film's constant refrain of "God and fate" is just smoke and mirrors, similar to the heroic crash landing. The ideas are used to distract us from the truth of the necessity of assigning responsibility. As the lawyers and CEOs fight to find who is responsible for the crash, Whip attempts to avoid responsibility of any sort. From the opening phone call in which he refuses to send money for his son's education to the drunken night before his trial, the brave pilot avoids any sort of obligation to himself or others. This makes Nicole's (played Kelly Reilly), his love interest, parallel story very important.
Although the two stories seem to be unconnected at first, their chance meeting in a hospital stairwell with the smoking cancer patient (played James Badge Dale) is a crucial moment. For this one moment, Whip and Nicole are at extreme opposites in their external lives. Whip has just become a hero, while Nicole has reached her personal low nearly dying from a drug overdose. Internally, though, they are the same: broken, addicted people that have just received their "wake-up call". The film wants us to take the easy way out and claim that fate or God has spared each of their lives, but then cleverly lays out two separate paths for each of the survivors. Nicole's involves responsibility and action. She goes to rehab, finds work, and most importantly, removes herself from those who would tempt her with drugs and alcohol. Her action is the difference and her tale is the heroic one. She will not cause any more damage to society (or herself) thanks to her realization that she was a drug addict - something that takes Whip the entire film to realize.
Flight uses skillful techniques to create moral ambiguity inside the viewer's head. It challenges us to pick apart what is just and fair when dealing with a criminal that is also a pseudo celebrity. It brings the tale of alcoholism close to home as we give breaks to Whip over and over, much like we would a loved one. The film seems to laugh at its viewers as it tricks them into hoping for empty promises and false happy endings. Whip's failures and subsequent imprisonment is the storybook ending. We just don't figure that out until the end.
Much like David Fincher's successful drama The Social Network, Robert Zemeckis' Flight catapults its viewers into a dark world where right and wrong hide in the shadows; a world in which the central hero's actions are shielded by a cinematic lens that prevent the audience from clearly seeing the moral implications. This manipulation is the trademark of brilliant filmmaking and effective bait and switch tactics help ensure a movie experience unlike most others. Led by an Oscar worthy performance by Denzel Washington, Flight is an intelligent look at morality in a modern setting and how sometimes right and wrong can be controlled by unrelated events.