Robert Zemeckis’ high-flying drama is impeccably paced, while John Gatin’s script is full of gravity. However, its ideological roots mean that rather than giving us something more thought-provoking, it ends up being yet another Reaganite morality tale of individual responsibility while turning a blind eye to corporate avarice.
Captain Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is a charismatic, cocaine-fuelled pilot, who after his plane falls apart in the sky, is responsible for saving almost 100 lives by landing it upside down. You could not have that as the opening for a film, and fail to be gripped. Washington is his usual absorbing self, and as surly and abusive as he might get, he’s an excellent flawed protagonist – often in spite of the surrounding environment (as with The Taking of Pelham 123).
Waking up some time later in hospital, Whip is confronted by two symbolic visitors – one is a pilot union rep, who thanklessly fights Whip’s corner throughout the course of events. The other is Whip’s dealer, Harling Mays (John Goodman), who arrives to the Rolling Stones song Sympathy for the Devil. Their relationship has a weird symmetry with another film starring both actors, as Greg Hoblit’s 1999 picture Fallen featured a demonic Goodman attempting to destroy Washington’s life, by getting inside his head and bringing out the worst in him. In the finale of that particular film, Washington kills Goodman, and smokes poisoned cigarettes, before allowing his own possession, to ensure the destruction of the demon. Sympathy for the Devil plays over the credits, with an ending implying that in spite of this, somehow ‘the devil’ lives on.
In Flight, the use of that same song seems to connote a similar relationship – as Harling Mays fuels Whip’s self-destructive behaviour to new extremes, even bringing vodka to his hospital bed! In both films, Washington’s character is forced to end his current existence to exorcise this demon (that’s more metaphorical in Flight). But importantly, this self-sacrificial-hero complex serves to sanctify a set of values that the character of Captain Whitaker comes to embody; those American ideological staples of self-determination and individual accountability. Those themes come to wash away other questions about corporate recklessness or what might drive people to live like Whitaker – meaning Flight ultimately becomes a grand ideological fable of American capitalism.
Of course, the film does to some extent talk about the corner-cutting of billionaire air-companies, whose lapse attitudes toward health and safety led to a plane falling out of the sky, and the death of several passengers and employees thanks to a dodgy screw. The film also brings up the issue that the families of the flight staff aren’t entitled to compensation as “They don’t count. They work knowing the risks of flying.” But this utterance is a one off – and falls well short of addressing the issue – instead it’s simply played out as wall-paper for the true act of individual heroism – Captain Whitaker’s confession.
Whip’s tearful admission of alcoholism is supposed to take on an air of selfless sacrifice – to preserve the name of his colleague who died saving a child – but in order to preserve his own honour code, he takes actions that completely absolve his employers of blame for the incident. It takes on a distasteful, tabloidy vibe, that pilot union reps and health and safety bodies might provide all manner of excuses for a flight’s failure – but really only the individual at the helm during a crash can be truly responsible for it. Never mind corporate recklessness, never mind the fact that recklessness and a lack of basic employment rights might drive staff to alcohol abuse to cope, the pilot was a drunk by his own choice – all systemic problems are irrelevant! He’s taken responsibility so corporate America won’t have to. What a hero.
In the end, then, Flight plays out as a lop-sided antithetical parody of real life; when Captain Chesley Sullenberger – the pilot who brought his plane safely down in the Hudson river, saving 100s of lives – went from hero to villain for complaining about the vicious pay-cuts pilots and flight-staff have to contend with from their bosses. Rather than simply accept individual plaudits, “Sully” wanted to use his prominence to fight for better pay and conditions for his industry as a whole, something brilliantly pointed out in Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story, complete with stories about pilots subsisting on food-stamps.
In the case of Flight, the ending is far more comfortable for the CEOs of America – Whip is reconciled with their ideology as a flawed maverick hero – who accepts ultimate responsibility on an individual level. There is no real systemic reason beyond marital-breakdown (that old chestnut) for his alcoholism, and no difficult questions are asked of cheap-buck, profit-before-people capitalism. The film ends up canonising not only Whip’s noble assumption of culpability then, but of the concept of self-determination and negative ‘liberty’. For me, that’s where Flight takes a nose-dive, and even the heroics of Whip Whitaker couldn’t stop it falling out of the sky on this occasion.