‘Flight’ the Movie featuring Denzel Washington – what we can learn from it – permission to reprint the review below



J Am Acad Psychiatry Law 41:2:321-322 (June 2013)

Copyright © 2013 by the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law.

Flight: The Descent of Addiction

Written by John Gatins. Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Produced by Laurie MacDonaldWalter ParkesJack Rapke. A Parkes & MacDonald and ImageMovers production distributed by Paramount Pictures. Released August 8, 2012, 139 minutes.

  1. Carl B. Greiner, MD

+Author Affiliations

  1. Omaha, NE

Flight presents a dramatic story line and graphic action that maintain audience interest through the more than two-hour film. The film examines an anguished man caught in the grip of addiction and the consequences of a misguided life. As the film begins, a strongly atmospheric scene foreshadows coming events, as powerful weather and personal turbulence intersect during the flight and crash of a passenger airliner. While the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigates the incident, the audience experiences its own challenge in defining responsibility for the failure of the flight. How should one make sense of this man, his life, and his actions?

Director Robert Zemeckis uses a rich set of literary allusions and visual images to illuminate Flight‘s thematic content of determinism and choice, accountability and redemption. The leitmotiv of inversion informs not only the physical movement of the airplane, but also the pilot’s life and the functioning of the legal system. The director is masterful in creating a feeling of turbulence that encompasses both the action and our assessments. The visual excitement of the film combines with a powerful and destructive personal story for a compelling viewing experience.

Flight captain and former Navy pilot Whip Whitaker is skillfully played by Denzel Washington. Whip’s extensive use of alcohol and cocaine before the doomed flight may have contributed to the crash or may have been its salvation. In the military, pilots have been given stimulants in the recent past to improve performance. The complex presentation of drug abuse and gifted ability in flying make it difficult to decide clearly on his individual culpability. What is clear is that Whip’s personal life has been in a descent that has alienated him from his former wife, his son, and some of his flight crew.

SPOILER SECTION REMOVED… Required blood testing reveals that Whip had a substantial alcohol level. He realizes then that he must avoid alcohol and an effective scene shows him pouring out all the liquor at home. However, the personal pressure on him increases during the investigation. Despite his best intentions, he returns to severe alcohol abuse and ugly scenes of social dyscontrol. In an ironic moment, he tells his girlfriend, “I choose to drink.” For the audience, the tragic personal descent does not feel like a choice. His comment is more reflective of his chronic lying to himself and others. His continued drinking, despite his intentions to stop, has the force of a determined outcome.

The viewer has a clear picture of a broken man with an addiction; a portrait that is echoed by the broken plane that failed in flight. The concurrence of the broken elements (man and plane) makes it difficult to ascertain responsibility for the plane’s crash.

For understanding the core meaning of the film, the metaphor of flying upside down (inversion) yields a useful approach. Inversion is an honored, classic technique in asserting surprising moral relationships. A biblical example would include “the first shall be last. ” Swift’s satire,Gulliver’s Travels, uses the inversion of the intelligent, fictional group of horses (the Houyhnhnms) as a contrast to the vile human beings, the Yahoos. The contrast highlights the moral failings of mankind.

In Flight, the inversion speaks not just to the aircraft’s flying upside down but also to the inversion of legal processes and the truth. Whip’s legal team provides talented and assertive advocacy in keeping an incriminating substance abuse blood level from becoming evidence.

SPOILER SECTION REMOVED…Despite the initial direction toward the tragedy of a heroic man, the direction of the film moves toward his redemption.

Ultimately, the film functions as a morality play in which the struggle of a man’s soul is demonstrated and the consequences observed. The matters of responsibility and guilt are identified but not resolved. The concurrence of a broken man, plane, and legal system is a useful challenge to Whip’s culpability. Overarching questions of communal responsibility constrain the simple notion of individual responsibility.


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One Response to ‘Flight’ the Movie featuring Denzel Washington – what we can learn from it – permission to reprint the review below

  1. Pingback: 2014 To Be the Year of the Brain News Round-Up July 2013 2nd Edition | The Amazing World of Psychiatry: A Psychiatry Blog

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