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Film / Flight

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Sometimes heroism is messy.
"Nobody could've landed that plane like I did."
Captain William "Whip" Whitaker

A 2012 live-action film directed and co-produced by Robert Zemeckis. Flight features an ensemble cast including Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle, Melissa Leo, Bruce Greenwood, Kelly Reilly, and John Goodman.

The story revolves around Captain William "Whip" Whitaker (Denzel Washington), a pilot who pulls off a miraculous crash landing after his commercial airliner plunges out of the sky due to a catastrophic mechanical failure. Hailed as a hero in the press, trouble arises behind the scenes due to Whitaker being both drunk and high on cocaine during the flight, facts which could result in serious prison time and even manslaughter charges. Further complicating matters for both him and his legal defenders is Whitaker's losing battle with alcoholism.

This film provides examples of:

  • Age-Gap Romance: Denzel Washington is twenty years older than Kelly Reilly and they appear to be playing characters that roughly correspond to their ages, given that Whip is old enough to be a divorcee with a teenage son. This dynamic was also in play between Whip and Katerina.
  • The Alcoholic: Whitaker, Nicole, and Katerina Marquez.
  • Amoral Attorney: Hugh Lang, of the Punch-Clock Villain variety. He shows a little professional pride in quashing Whitaker's blood toxicology test (showing both cocaine and large amounts of alcohol in his system), but otherwise the whole case is simply a job for him. He even backtracks after casually stating to his employer that the two dead flight attendants "don't count," though he quickly realizes how that sounds and explains how he was talking in the sense of the airline not being vulnerable to lawsuits from their families. Notably for an amoral attorney, he openly shows disgust for his client, Captain Whitaker.
  • Anti-Hero: Whip.
  • Arc Words: "Who are you?"
  • Arrogant Kung-Fu Guy: Whip is supremely confident in his own skills as a pilot and he's entirely justified in this. Conversely he's not the most pleasant or social person outside of longtime friends and his arrogant confidence in his piloting blinds him to how his alcoholism has left his personal life and relationship with his family in tatters.
  • Badass Boast: "Nobody could've landed that plane like I did." And it's true.
  • Batman Gambit: It's implied that the lead NTSB investigator pulls one during the hearing to get Whitaker to admit that he was drunk during the flight. Notable in that it was clearly not out of malice but simply that the whole truth would come out.
  • Belly-Scraping Flight: Moments before its crash landing, the airliner's right wing cuts the top off a church steeple.
  • Benevolent Boss: For Whitaker's other faults he treats his stewardesses quite well.
  • Berserk Button: Whatever you do, don't touch Harlan Mays' drugs.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Whip confesses he was intoxicated during the flight, is sent to jail, and may never fly a plane again. But by telling the truth, he is freed of his addictions and guilt, permitting him to reconcile with his friends and family. Additionally he notes that he'll be in prison for around five years, implying that he managed to escape direct blame for the crash and avoid the much more serious manslaughter charges.
  • Body Wipe: Afer Whip's breakdown and confession at the NTSB hearing, the camera zooms in for a tight closeup of his eyes. The camera then zooms back out...and he is in jail, talking to fellow inmates at an AA meeting.
  • Break the Haughty: Whip's smug confidence throughout the whole film gradually falls apart during the NTSB hearing as he's confronted with just how low he was originally willing to stoop to avoid trouble. He gradually realizes the gravity of his plan to frame Katerina - his deceased lover - for his own alcoholism while drunk and high in the same hearing. When he openly admits that he's an alcoholic he's on the verge of tears.
  • Broken Ace: Whip's actions during the plane crash and the subsequent inability of other pilots to save passengers in recreated simulations of the event make him stand out as a brilliant and talented pilot without equal. He's also a cocaine-snorting alcoholic who has no problem flying while both drunk and high and his relationships with his ex-wife and son are a mess.
  • The Captain: Whitaker averts the archetype in many ways, but there's no doubt who the man in charge on that plane was and who got it on the ground in more less one piece. The movie juxtaposes his absolute calm and mastery of the aircraft with the absolute lack of any control in his personal life.
  • Chekhov's Gun: After the plane passes through the storm, Whitaker addresses the passengers while surreptitiously filling up a small jug of orange juice with three small bottles of vodka. During this, the camera lingers on him throwing the flasks into a trashbin. After the crash, the discovery of the vodka bottles is what eventually leads to the inquiry and misplaced blame on Katerina until Whitaker finally admits to his alcoholism.
  • Crazy Enough to Work: Flip a plane upside down to arrest a nosedive? Sure. And the crazy part is, this is very much Truth in Television.
  • Danger Deadpan: Whitaker barely changes the tone of his voice while trying to save the plane while everyone else is panicking for their lives.
  • Deus ex Machina / Diabolus ex Machina: Depending on how you want to look at it. Due to the successful maneuvering of his lawyers, he is about to get off scot-free, and is even locked in a hotel room with no alcohol to keep him from ruining his hearing. An exceedingly unlikely set of events — an adjoining suite with a stocked minibar that wasn't locked properly, and a breeze that rattles the door to alert him of this — sets him off on a bender, and puts him in the frame of mind to confess his guilt. One could see this as a thoroughly unlikely disaster, but considering the heavy religious themes of the movie, it's entirely possible that God did this to lead him to redemption.
  • Dinky Drivers: An unusual full-sized version of this when the plane rolls - while Whitaker is forced to keep both hands on the control yoke to keep the plane steady, he has the co-pilot control the speed brakes and landing gear, and one of the stewardesses work the throttles.
  • Drugs Are Bad: Whip pulls off incredible feats in spite of, or because of, drugs, but the movie is a very strong case against addiction.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: Harling is introduced with "Sympathy for the Devil" and is a bad influence upon Whitaker.
  • Drunken Master: Deconstructed. Whip can pull off a maneuver to save his plane that no other pilot can do while drunk and high (maybe even because he was drunk and high, allowing him to stay unnaturally calm and in control), but his personal life suffers severely and once the authorities find out about his addiction, his flight career is over.
  • Dude, Where's My Respect?: Despite being portrayed as a hero by the media, Whip gets annoyed at the perceived focus on his drug and alcohol habits rather than the fact that the plane itself malfunctioned. This may have been fueled by anger over his denial of his alcoholism.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Hugh Lang may be ruthless about winning Whip's case, down to discrediting legitimate evidence and falsely blaming dead coworkers, but when hiring Harling to give Whip a wake-up cocaine snort from a hangover, he noticeably avoids handing Harling money directly, instead making Anderson give Harling the cash.
  • Functional Addict: Whitaker and Katerina.
  • Going Cold Turkey: After being released from the hospital, Whip goes through the house he's staying at and throws out or flushes down all the alcohol he can find. However, his sobriety only lasts for a day or so and then he's back to drinking again.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: Right after the crash, Katerina's body is only visible below the neck, with the splash of blood hinting at what happened to the head.
  • Heel–Faith Turn: Implied strongly in Whitaker's case during the epilogue, although it appears to be of a God Before Dogma type.
  • Heroes Want Redheads: Nicole becomes an interest for Whitaker as soon as she appears in his life.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: When the plane inverts, Katerina unbuckles her restraints to help lift a child who fell down to the ceiling-turned-floor back into his seat. Unfortunately, she's unable to secure herself again before the crash and is pile-drivered into the cabin floor on impact.
  • Hookers and Blow: Whip's general behavior before the accident. Note that Katerina isn't a prostitute, but the promiscuity is still there.
  • Impairment Shot: Whip, when he's taken out of the plane and again when waking up in the hospital.
  • Improbable Piloting Skills/Ace Pilot: To drive the point, the airline had eleven other pilots attempt to save the plane as Whitaker did in simulations. All failed.
  • Incoming Ham: Whenever Harlan Mays shows up he makes his gregarious presence well and truly known in only a way that John Goodman can.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Whip can be arrogant, abrasive and difficult to deal with but he's a good person underneath it all. It also doesn't help that a lot of his unpleasant behavior is fueled by his alcoholism.
  • Just Plane Wrong: Several professional airline pilots have pointed out the many unrealistic aspects of this movie, both in terms of the pilots' conduct, and the technical aspects of the flight & crash.
  • Modesty Bedsheet: Denzel Washington in the opening scene. Notable because it is utterly averted, at length, by Nadine Velazquez in the same scene.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Katerina, who's very beautiful, has a lengthy period where she's walking around completely naked, and seen from the front too. Right in the very first scene, mind you.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Whitaker's eventual breakdown during the hearing, which begins with "God help me."
  • Nailed to the Wagon: The night before the NTSB public hearing, his lawyer and union rep check Whitaker into a hotel room with a guard outside the door, and whose mini-bar has been stripped of alcohol. Too bad that the interior door to the next room over was accidentally left unlocked.
  • Naked on Arrival: Katerina. Extra points for opening the film strutting around a hotel room completely nude. Technically Whitaker is this too, but we see a lot less of him than her.
  • Nerves of Steel: Whip's ability to remain cool and in control even as the plane begins to go into a nosedive is something to behold (though to be fair the alcohol might have helped). It becomes even more impressive when at the NTSB hearing we learn that ten pilots weren't able to save the plane in the way that Whip despite being in far less stressful simulations.
  • Never My Fault: Whip insists this through the majority of the movie, that it's all they airline's fault for the crash and the death of some of the passengers and crew because they failed to properly maintain the aircraft. He's technically right about this, but it doesn't change the fact that he flew a plane while drunk and high.
  • Never Trust a Trailer: One TV ad for the movie sold it as a suspense/thriller, with hints of government conspiracy ("it's a lie, Whip"), while the movie itself establishes Whitaker's drinking and drug habits from the start.
  • Off on a Technicality: Hugh's legal plan to have Whip escape punishment for being drunk and high while flying the plane. He successfully gets Whip's blood toxicology test voided on procedural technicalities and plans to have Katerina framed for the vodka bottles consumed on the plane. It would have worked perfectly had Whip not broken down and confessed.
  • Off the Wagon: Whitaker, repeatedly. Until it finally sticks in the epilogue. Nicole gets back on the wagon after her overdose in the opening scenes and fights to stay there for the rest of the film.
  • Oh, Crap!: When Hugh reveals to Whip that the investigators drew a blood sample from him while he was unconscious in the hospital he immediately realizes how much trouble he's in since he was intoxicated and high on the flight.
  • Only Sane Man:
    • It's almost comical watching Whip remain utterly calm and collected whilst everyone else freaks out when the plane goes into a nosedive toward a seemingly certain unsurvivable crash.
    • It's also Truth in Television, as many pilots have failed to save the plane/passengers because they panicked. As a result, they couldn't think clearly enough to perform the tasks needed to save the plane. However, pilots that have remained calm and collected throughout the situation were able to act rationally, and save most (if not all) of the passengers. The plane however is usually written off for... obvious reasons.
  • R-Rated Opening: Full frontal female nudity in the first two minutes.
  • The Scapegoat:
    • Katerina becomes one for Whitaker's defenders, as a way of pinning the blame for the two used vodka bottles in the airplane's trash. Whitaker initially balks at scapegoating a dead woman, especially one he was both romantically involved with and who died while rescuing a child, but eventually agrees to go along with the plan. When asked under oath, he denies drinking the vodka bottles. At first.
    • The logic of the investigation is to find a scapegoat to blame for the plane crash, rather than the company building the plane facing any sort of legal or PR repercussions.
  • Sexy Stewardess: Katerina, and the movie knows it.
  • Shell-Shock Silence: When the plane crashes, Whip hits his head on his control yoke, knocking him out cold. From that moment until he's loaded into the ambulance, the sound of ringing ears can be heard and all other sounds are muffled or distorted to varying degrees.
  • Shown Their Work:
    • The physics of Whitaker's fatal flight are fairly well done, though some Artistic License – Physics was taken to amp up the drama. With his elevators jammed nose-down, vertical flight controls broken, he did pretty much the ONLY thing that would have had a prayer of keeping that plane in the air a short time - inverting the plane, turning nose-down into nose-up. The stuff that should fail in an inverted jumbo jet - like the gravity-assisted oil pumps - indeed fail, causing the engines to overheat and catch fire. Why did the plane not explode on impact? He dumped almost all the fuel and ran the remaining fuel out the burning engines.
    • While extremely dramatic, two errors that didn't appear all that necessary crop up. First, Whitaker narrates dramatically to Air Traffic Control when the aircraft was uncontrollable; real-life pilots know that communicating their issue to ATC just wastes valuable headspace, speech, and time that simply can't be spared when dealing with an extremely dangerous control malfunction; a pilot calls Mayday only when the situation has somewhat stabilized. Second, each engine gives a fire warning, and the First Officer correctly activates the fire handles on each engine (which cuts off all fuel to the engine, then sprays the engine down with fire retardant, i.e., shutting down the engine permanently so that it does not destroy the airframe) and yet, after deliberately shutting down each engine, the First Officer seems surprised when each engine spins down and loses power; the error is compounded when Whitaker calls for (and gets) full power after the engines have been permanently shut down.
  • Stuka Scream: Can be heard briefly when SouthJet 227 resumes diving after the First Officer deploys flaps to try to curtail the initial dive. This is noticeably out of place considering there's no possible way for an MD-80 airliner to make this sound.
  • Sir Not-Appearing-in-This-Trailer: Kelly Reilly's character, Nicole Maggen, is minimally featured in the film's advertisements yet plays a major role. John Goodman is prominent but only appears in three short scenes.
  • Toxic Friend Influence: Whip is good friends with his drug dealer Harlan Mays, trusting him enough to give him access to his house. Mays is still remorselessly enabling Whip's alcohol and drug addictions.
  • Tropaholics Anonymous: Whip is eventually forced to attend the AA.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The accident was apparently inspired by the January 31, 2000 crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261, which also was the result of a broken jackscrew that pinned the elevators down. At one point, the plane went inverted, with the pilots trying to use the inversion to stop the dive - it even worked for a very short time. Unfortunately, the real life control damage was too severe, and the plane crashed into the ocean. There were no survivors.
  • Vomit Indiscretion Shot: A passenger quite understandably vomits during the crash sequence.
  • Worst Aid: Whip twice uses cocaine as a hangover cure after heavy nights of drinking. The health hazards of putting so many substances into your body notwithstanding, cocaine's effects on relieving a hangover are pretty short term. Realistically, Whip would fall back into a daze after 15 to 30 minutes, but aside from one mention of a later offscreen snort at the climax, he's sharp-minded and steady again for the rest of the day each time.