Denzel Washington dons a pilot's cap and wings in this gripping-but-graphic drama about a man's battle to land a stricken plane … and overcome his addictions.
A man awakens in a hotel room. He grabs an open beer bottle and drains the dregs, setting it down next to other empty bottles and an overflowing ash tray. A naked woman next to him rises, then listens as the man takes a phone call and argues with his ex-wife. The woman reminds him they have a 9:00 a.m. flight. The man snorts a line of cocaine. Then he gets ready for work.
His name is Whip Whittaker. And he's a veteran pilot for SouthJet Air.
Today, Whip will fly under the influence—just like he's done 10 times in the last three days. But today will not be just like every other day for Whip and his lover, a flight attendant named Katerina Marquez. Today Whip and an earnest co-pilot he's never met will ascend into the teeth of a maelstrom.
Twenty-six minutes after a rough take-off, the plane slips into a stream of smooth air. Then the unthinkable happens. There's a thud—a thud that awakens the inebriated captain from the stupor he's slipped into. Then, the plunge. The plane sheds 10,000 feet in moments.
The co-pilot prays. Loudly: "Lord Jesus!" Screams fill the cabin. A flight attendant gets hurled into a bulkhead. She collapses.
Chaos reigns everywhere on the stricken plane.
Everywhere, that is, except Capt. Whip Whittaker's chair. Step by step, the veteran pilot takes control. He slows the plane's precipitous dive, inverting it to stabilize its flight. Five hundred feet above a field next to a church outside Atlanta, Whip flips the plane back over and … "lands" it.
When Whip awakens after the crash, he's in a hospital room recovering from minor injuries. Waiting for him is pilot union representative Charlie Anderson, who informs him that only six of the 102 souls onboard lost their lives.
It's a miracle. Whip Whittaker is a hero.
But there is one other matter: the results of the toxicology test taken before Whip regained consciousness. Results that will determine whether the alcoholic and drug-abusing hero spends the remainder of his days in prison.
[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
Flight is about two crashes. The first involves Whip Whittaker's miraculous landing of a crippled plane. The second is the slow-motion crash of the pilot's life as he's forced out of denial about his addictions.
Whip grew up flying his father's crop duster and later flew in the Navy. He's a man's man, someone who projects an aura of invincibility. While everyone else panics, his placidly preternatural piloting skill proves he's totally in control. Even as the plane rockets downward, Whip has the presence of mind to instruct a flight attendant named Margaret to speak into the flight data recorder and tell her son that she loves him.
But Whip's not in control of his life. His substance abuse has cost him his wife and his relationship with his teenage son, Trevor.
In the hospital, Whip meets another addict, Nicole, a woman who's in the grip of heroin and trapped in an unwanted porn "career." Nicole and Whip are kindred spirits, and they seek to help each other. Whip confronts her predatory landlord, for instance. Nicole, meanwhile, heads to AA and exhorts Whip to do the same.
It's partly to keep from defaming Katerina's memory (she dies trying to save a little boy right before the plane crashes) that Whip eventually and tearfully admits he drank before that flight and many others. In prison, he tells a group of fellow addicts, "That was it. I was finished. I was done. It was as if I had reached my lifelong limit of lies. I could not tell one more lie." Despite incarceration, Whip concludes, "For the first time in my life, I'm free." He says he's made apologies to many who tried to help him through the years, some of whom have forgiven him, he believes, some of whom haven't. One of those people is his son, with whom he has a renewed relationship by film's end.
A Christian couple reasons that the crash was preordained by God, saying, "Nothing happens in the kingdom of our Lord that's a mistake." They also say they believe that "Jesus our Savior" was guiding Whip's hands. In the same conversation, they describe God as a "higher judge" than any human authority.
Whip and Nicole encounter a cancer patient who essentially says the same thing. He believes that God chose for him to have cancer. Embracing that thought as he nears death has led to a sense of peace and freedom that he wishes he would have had earlier.
But when Whip hears the crash described as an "act of God" (a phrase that's used a lot), he asks, "Whose God would do this?" He mocks the faith of flight attendant Margaret Thomason, saying he'll get her back to Atlanta in time for her prayer meeting with "Jesus Christ Superstar." Margaret corrects him, saying she attends Christ the King Baptist Church. She also invites him to come with her.
As she sobers up, Nicole is shown sitting next to what looks like a Bible, which Whip picks up and looks at. So there's a bit of movement in his spiritual condition shown. In prison, he hints that God played a role in his newfound sobriety when he says, "I'm sober. I thank God for that." He has a framed copy of the Serenity Prayer in his cell.
The plane crashes near a Pentecostal church, with one wing clipping the steeple. It happens as white-robed church members baptize new believers in a nearby lake. We're told they set up a prayer vigil for the wounded. Throughout the film we glimpse Christian symbols such as crosses, crucifixes and praying hands.
That opening hotel-room scene with Whip and Katerina shows her completely naked and from all angles. She wanders around the room for several long minutes in that condition as Whip talks with his ex-wife on the phone. Eventually, she dons a thong and gets dressed.
Nicole is shown walking out of an apartment with $100; it's implied she's prostituted herself. She heads to a porn film set where she's supposed to be in two scenes involving anal sex. An actor and the director talk through the "action," and the actor undoes a towel (facing her, not the camera) so she can see his "pipe" (as they call his anatomy) before filming. Nicole has had enough by this time, though, and refuses to do the shoot. Later, the director gives her packages of heroin and cocaine. Thus, when Nicole admonishes Whip about his alcoholism, he counterattacks by accusing her of performing oral sex in exchange for drugs. Nicole's sleazy landlord hints that he's willing to cut her a break on rent in exchange for sex. It's implied that she's acquiesced to similar manipulation before.
Nicole moves in with Whip. It's implied they sleep together. (We see her bare back in bed one morning.) In the hospital, an old pilot friend of Whip's named Harling Mays brings him a variety of contraband, including cigarettes, alcohol and a stack of pornographic magazines. Harling calls them "stroke mags," and instructs Whip to masturbate as much as he wants—because he's a hero. We see Whip's bare backside in a hospital gown.
Wicked turbulence during SouthJet Flight 227's initial descent takes out one flight attendant by bashing her head brutally against two bulkheads. Passengers are rattled mightily throughout the plane's plunge.
After the crash, another flight attendant's head is pinned bloodily beneath a piece of protruding metal. Blood covers co-pilot Ken Evans' face; after he recovers from a coma, he tells Whip that his legs and pelvis have been crushed. Whip has suffered face lacerations and torn ligaments.
We see the crash from the outside, too. A wing shears off, and burning wreckage is seen. Both engines explode.
Whip tackles Nicole's landlord. Whip later seeks refuge at his ex-wife's house. But he's drunk, and their encounter soon degenerates into a shouting match that escalates into a wrestling match with his son.
Crude or Profane Language
About 50 f-words, at least one of them paired with "mother." Nearly 25 s-words. God's name is linked with "d‑‑n" three or four times. Jesus' name is abused the same number of times, including one back-to-back usage with the f-word. Milder profanities includes "a‑‑," "b‑‑ch" and "h‑‑‑." We hear rough slang for the male anatomy.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Whip smokes and drinks constantly. We see him consume beer and vodka while driving. Once, he falls on a table full of bottles, then passes out. Before his hearing, Whip's team of handlers makes sure there's no alcohol in his hotel room. Unfortunately, a door between his room and the next has inadvertently been left open, and he finds—and drinks—an entire mini fridge full of booze. When Charlie and Hugh find him, he's passed out in his underwear in the bathroom, bottles strewn everywhere, the toilet smeared with his blood.
Twice, Whip uses cocaine (a stimulant) to "overcome" the depressant effects of alcohol. Both times we see him snort the stuff. He also smokes a cocaine-dipped cigarette.
Nicole's addiction is heroin. She obtains it from her porn-movie pusher, then goes home and shoots up. We see her tie off her arm and insert the needle. She soon passes out and is hospitalized.
We hear mentions of prescription medications such as Xanax and Vicodin. Whip flushes some of those pills down the toilet.
Other Negative Elements
Lawyer Hugh Lang is hired to make Whip's incriminating toxicology report "go away" by any means necessary. Hugh, Charlie and others who work for the airline have a strong interest in exonerating Whip because if he's guilty of operating a plane under the influence during a fatal crash, the ensuing legal liability would likely bankrupt the airline. So they work tirelessly to ensure that he's ready to lie through his deposition. They also stand by as Harling lays lines of cocaine out for the pilot to "whip" him into shape. (Whip does lie throughout much of the hearing, but in the end confesses the truth.)
Earlier in the investigation, Whip leans on both Margaret and Ken, asking them to lie on his behalf. Both resist. In the end, however, it's implied that neither tells quite the whole truth.
Flight plumbs the depths of one man's destructive addictions, as Denzel Washington fully inhabits Whip Whittaker's proud, fractured, damaged psyche. It's a compelling performance that reminds us that only the truth can set a trapped man free.
Throughout the journey, viewers are prompted to ponder whether God might somehow be at work, both in shaping the circumstances that reveal Whip's desperate condition and in offering Himself as an alternative to the world's empty ways.
But Flight seeks to accomplish that noble narrative purpose without pulling any of its punches. Whether it's Whip Whittaker's predilection for illicit sex, cocaine or the bottle, the camera rarely looks away from the self-destructive choices that corrode his soul. The addiction-riddled pilot has a gnawing emptiness inside, and Flight insists that we look unblinkingly into that shadowy void's darkest recesses.