All Commentary
Monday, April 8, 2013

The Hair of the Dog

The plot of Flight revolves around a plane crash, but serves almost exclusively to convey its main character to redemption. Both vehicles—movie and plane—get more or less to where they’re going, though neither one with as much precision as you’d like. And they both end with a thud only just softened by Denzel Washington.

Washington’s character, Whip Whitman, winds up in a state of grace and a federal penitentiary thanks to the intercession of a federal investigator presented as an agent of the gods, if not a god herself. 

The movie is mostly very good. Borderline great. But it left me with a bad taste in my mouth, like director Robert Zemeckis served up one single-malt after another and then, right when he needed to cut us off, he snuck in a watered-down Jack Daniels. That’s the problem I have with this movie, really: Zemeckis ruins a fantastic piece of character development for the sake of a tidy ending. That he makes the State the agent of redemption just rubs salt in the wound rather than around the rim of a margarita, where it belongs. 

Whitman is a man who puts the “functional” in “functional alcoholic.” He also happens to be a fantastically good pilot. He knows it, too, and it’s why he can pull off a miraculous and audacious maneuver that, when the plane starts falling apart and diving earthward, allows most of the passengers to survive. 

The flying—and the air traffic control chatter, and Denzel’s persona in the cockpit—is ludicrous to actual pilots. That wouldn’t matter so much, except for the other thing Zemeckis drives home right off the bat: Whip got on that plane drunk and coked up. 

Writing in The Daily Beast, actual pilot Patrick Smith explains why this plot point crosses the line from ludicrous to insulting. Smith’s article is worth reading, but here’s the punch line:

 “There’s no Whip Whitaker in the cockpit. Why not? The rest of us wouldn’t tolerate such a dangerous colleague in our midst.” 

That is, the people on the ground handle this problem for themselves, on the ground. 

It’s a crucial point given the way the rest of the movie plays out. Aside from making the meat of the movie seem kind of pointless, the ending presents the State as the only hope for saving us from a skyful of smashed flyboys—and, ultimately, from ourselves. 

To get there, it has to layer one set of far-fetched premises (the maneuvers in the plane, Whip’s initial bravado) on top of another set, which remain implicit: about alcohol as something akin to demonic possession and drunk pilots as a routine part of commercial aviation. 

It’s despicable that Whip flew that plane drunk. Of course. But the movie doesn’t explain why. It’s despicable because of what it does to other people. Drunken flying isn’t the origin of the misfortune in this story, though. It could have been, and Zemeckis gives us reason to believe it would have been in the future. But he also gives us reason to doubt that Whip would ever pull anything like that again.

The drinking doesn’t even prevent Whip from pulling off a miracle. That heroic act doesn’t change the fact that pilots shouldn’t fly drunk and should be punished for doing so. But neither does his drunk flying have anything to do with most of what makes the story go. The airline’s negligence causes the crash. Whip, despite his own negligence, keeps it from killing every single person on board.

This swirl of intentionality, negligence, buck-passing, and poor choices made under intense pressure sets up all kinds of moral ambiguity and dramatic tension. (It also brings to mind the concept of moral luck.) Zemeckis and Washington (and all the top-level but mostly underused acting talent around him) mine it expertly for the sake of storytelling.

But then the ending happens. Moral ambiguity is safely swept away for us just as it’s getting really interesting—and it doesn’t seem to matter much who wields the broom. As Smith-the-actual-pilot explains, the movie plays into irrational fears about flying that the occasional news story about a drunk pilot stirs in people. “It’s tempting to jump to conclusions: for every pilot who’s caught, there must be a dozen others out there getting away with it. Right?” asks Smith. “Well, quite frankly, no.” 

Some numbers back him up: It’s very rare for a pilot to even show up at an airport drunk. Everyone, Smith says, has a strong incentive to keep a drunk from flying. He says that even the alcoholics among the broader community of pilots take great pains to keep their problem away from the cockpit. That suggests that volition, even on the part of the alcoholics, plays a much bigger role than this movie, at least, would have you believe. 

From a storytelling perspective, I can see why Zemeckis decided to indulge the most hackneyed of all cinematic clichés—the dramatic courtroom confession. He sets up Whip as a kind of tragic hero, particularly as the NTSB hearing draws near. Tragic heroes don’t get off scot-free. And blockbusters don’t wrap up with loose ends unless they’re setting up sequels.

Here’s what happens: The night before the hearing, 10 days after Whip began drying out, his union rep and lawyer (Don Cheadle, so routinely sublime you keep forgetting you’re watching art happen) check him into a suite a few floors up from where the hearing is due to take place. They’ve cleared the minibar of alcohol and posted a bouncer outside. Incidentally, this is Whip’s second attempt to get clean. The first attempt commenced as soon as he got out of the hospital and ended when he found out he might do time despite having just saved 96 lives. 

In the hotel, the adjoining room has been cleaned (and its minibar thoroughly restocked). Somehow a window was left open and the connecting door unlatched. The breeze makes the door thump, calling to Whip as if the Sirens had sent out their song in Morse code. Whip fights with himself and very nearly makes the right call. 

The next day, Whip’s handlers find the room looking like Keith Moon just spent the night. 

Whip, still drunk, has them call Harling Mays, his friend and drug dealer (John Goodman), who brings him some cocaine. Then Mays demands cash from the rep and lawyer, who pat their pockets, surprised at finding themselves in the midst of a drug deal at a time like this. Whip emerges from the bathroom a few minutes later looking more in control than either of them. In a brilliant touch, the elevator plays a muzak version of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends” (“I get by with a little help from my friends/Oh, I get high with a little help from my friends”). 

The whole thing winds up being hilarious, albeit a little darkly so. It looks like Whip’s bested the fates for the second time. The movie should have stopped right there: ironic, symmetrical (it opens with Whip doing a line to clear his head before the flight), ambiguous, and leaving the audience with all sorts of things to argue about.

But instead we get the hearing. 

Lead NTSB investigator Ellen Block (played by Melissa Leo), spoken of throughout in whispers of dread, finally shows up like she just descended from Olympus. She confirms everything Whip’s been saying and then immediately discards it. All that artful erosion of our confidence in Whip, which takes up the lion’s share of the movie? Well, whatever.

Block uses the exoneration and praise like a velvet-covered cudgel on Whip’s conscience. Maybe she is Whip’s conscience. The investigators found two empty vodka bottles, and one of the victims—Katerina, Whip’s companion in the opening scene—had a toxicology report that both made it into evidence and showed an elevated blood alcohol content (Whip’s report was killed off by his lawyer). Is Whip really going to tarnish her memory by pinning those two bottles on her?

What nobody explains is how, really, sneaking a drink would have tarnished Katerina’s memory anyway. She made some poor choices drinking so much the night before. But she died because of a completely different choice, getting out of her seat while the plane was upside down to buckle in a child. What kind of moral peril is contained in those little travel-sized Smirnoffs that could ruin this act of self-sacrifice?

Whip declines to lie under oath. It seems like the right thing to do. It’s certainly difficult. His fundamental character comes through. Then we cut to prison a little over a year later. He’s clean. His son’s coming by to reconcile. Everyone’s happy. 

It’s as if Zemeckis ultimately appealed to every ignorant prejudice that keeps blue laws in place and the drug war rolling. And, more than that, he reinforces the assumption that the powers that be in Washington resemble the Pantheon in ways beyond simply using their power to pursue personal agendas and petty revenges. As if, maybe, the real invisible hands are wielded from the Beltway and keep the very planes aloft.

This makes the uplift at the end of Flight ultimately ring hollow; it’s as contrived and fanciful as whatever it was keeping that plane aloft when Whip turned it upside down.