Almost every movie can be straitjacketed into one of the three categories: Man vs Man, Man vs Society, Man vs Himself. Out of those three, I think, Man vs Himself makes for riveting drama. Mainly because the tension here is derived from an absence of a concrete physical form. There’s nothing external that needs to be annihilated or reasoned with; instead the fight is against your own self, gnawing away at your poise and inner equanimity. There’s no glamorous show-down or heated confrontation. When do you need yourself the most? And can you help yourself at the most opportune time? These questions shape the majority of Robert Zemeckis’s latest movie, Flight.
Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is a commercial airline pilot. It’s not like any other job: any job that directly affects the lives of so many people on a day-to-day basis cannot be ordinary. And with such jobs, the knowledge of sense of responsibility is as important as skill. Many a times, it’s the former that testifies for the latter. There’s a strange altruism in-built in these jobs (a suitable counterpart to this job would be being a doctor). But Whip is not the kind who’s too keen on assuming a responsibility. He’s an alcoholic. On the morning he’s supposed to fly, his head reels with hangover because of heavy drinking last night. And to counter his uneasiness, he snorts cocaine. It would have been pretty appalling were he to only fly alone, here he’s accountable to 102 people on-board.
Merely few minutes into the flight, and the turbulent weather jolts the aircraft. We are unsure whether a visibly drunk Whip is up for the job. He takes some swift, astute decisions and steers the aircraft safely. So his inebriated state is not a problem. Yet. It’s only minutes later that the aircraft swivels out of control once again, and this time Whip’s not at fault. In fact, given the state of things, he ensures a relatively secure landing, minimizing loss of human life. It’s found out later that it was nothing short of a miracle. An act of God, as everyone articulates later. This part is especially important to the movie, because it nicely sets up the understanding of right and wrong for us within the confines of the movie. You couldn’t fault Whip for the final result (in fact, he’s the national hero for salvaging the situation heroically), rather only for his motives. Zemeckis is trying to imply that our actions need not only result in catastrophic failures for us to be guilty. That guilt can also germinate from somewhere within us, the consequences of which are not seen or felt by anyone.
It’s not long before toxicology reports reveal that the alcohol content in Whip’s blood was three times more than the permissible limit. An offence that could land him in jail for a couple of years. It’s fascinating the way Gatins and Zemeciks carve Whip’s emotional graph He’s not the one who can break down easily, or be embroiled in guilt. On the contrary, he has no qualms in repeating his mistakes, is adamant that he has done no wrong, doesn’t hold back in lashing out at people close to him, or milking them emotionally for his own benefits. He’s a man devoid of any self-restraint, and is essentially weak — both mentally and physically. A man whose faculties are compromised due to his frequent drunken escapades.
The movie changes its tone quite swiftly and becomes quite grim when it has to. In movies where characters grapples with addiction, they are often portrayed as desperate and violent, stooping to any level to get their fix. Here Zemeciks evades that easy route and instead shows a lesser explored facet of people enslaved to substances: restlessness. People can go to any lengths to convince others that they are not in the wrong — equivocating, prevaricating, being angry. But when they are tormented by their own inner conscience, there’s hardly any place left to abscond.
Given how old the main character is, Flight is quite an interesting coming-of-age film, and an adept one too. It poses some serious questions to its protagonist and the screenplay quite gallantly stands up to them. Because it’s confronting the uneasy questions about its own self that gives so many movies the jitters. Or people for that matter.