This weekend, in between sleeping, homework and laughing/crying at the UNC football team, I finished watching the movie “Flight” starring Denzel Washington.
Washington plays a pilot who has a severe drinking problem. The opening scene is a still-drunk Denzel in a cheap hotel room surrounding by last night’s fun including empty bottles, cigarette butts and a naked Latina, who turns out to be a flight attendant.
Washington clearly has some demons, but this movie gives an interesting look into the life of a functioning alcoholic. There is never a worry about Washington’s flying ability, but his mental health and physical well-being seem to be racing as to which can waste away quickest.
The most exciting part of the movie happens early-on when a plane Washington is flying has a mechanical issue and he has to pull an extremely risky maneuver (he flew upside down basically) just to make sure the entire plane does not crash and burn. Following the accident, he is treated like a hero by the media — everyone was so impressed with the brave captain who saved countless lives.
Soon however, an investigation into what happened begins and Washington’s toxicology report comes back. He had a .21 BAC and cocaine in his system, possibly setting himself for up decades in prison. He is adamant that it had nothing to do with the plane falling out of the sky and his lawyers and union reps agree — but it doesn’t change the fact he was the captain of an aircraft with 200 people while drunk and high.
The plot continues to see him shut down. He moves back to his dad’s farm and binge consumes anything that is available to him. His toxicology report had not been made public, so the media was still anointing him as the hero of Flight 227. But he knew that at his hearing, there was a chance he could go to jail and lose everything.
The movie dives deep into alcoholism and the lives it can destroy, but, for me as a journalist, it provided the reminder that not everything is as it appears.
Washington’s character was the ideal pilot by a resumé’s perspective: decorated Navy pilot, comes from a pilot family, had decades of experience. The media was right to crown him the hero because he was a hero, drunk or not. But in all of the news stories about him, there was never a true effort to reach out to people that knew the true him, or at least there wasn’t from the viewer’s perspective. I was almost embarrassed for the reporters by how easy it was for him to evade him.
Flight as a movie is a solid, B+ film with a great acting performance and a script that was probably five pages too long. Flight as a journalism lesson is a reminder that diligence and cynicism never hurt, especially when things seem too good to be true.