Friday, February 22, 2013

Flight -- drugs, denial, deception and confession

Director: Robert Zemeckis, 2012 (R)

In January 2009 Captain “Sully” Sullenberger piloted a  disabled plane, landing it in the Hudson River of Manhattan in New York. All 155 passengers and crew survived. Sully emerged a true American hero. Now imagine if Sully had been drunk during this event and you get the picture of Captain Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) the hero/antihero in this film.

The movie opens with a scene of debauchery. Whip is sleeping naked in a hotel room. His friend and airline attendant Trina is walking about naked, looking for something to smoke and something to wear. Whip wakes, snorts some coke, drinks some beer, and after a shower emerges looking cool behind his avaiator shades. He is apparently ready for his day’s work to begin: a milk-run flight from Miami to Atlanta.

Initial turbulence lends an air of gravity and concern to the easy flight. Yet, Whip takes it in stride, even as his copilot, a cartoonish Christian, struggles to know what to do. It is when mechanical failures hit that the real troubles begin. Whip is in his element. He is in control. He flips the plane over so that it is flying upside down and then lands it in a field beside a church. Only a half-dozen people die, including his one night stand.

Hailed as a hero, Whip awakes to find himself in a hospital with minor injuries. But not all is well. His friend Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood) from the pilot’s union is there. And he later brings a lawyer (Don Cheadle) to their meeting because initial toxicology reports indicate that Whip was over the limit while flying. Ha could face imprisonment if this is substantiated.

Into the mix comes Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a woman Whip meets while in the hospital. A drug addict, she has hit bottom and nearly overdosed. They find themselves drawn together, and she forms a perfect foil for him. As she is committed to beating the addiction, joining AA and getting clean, he is denying his issues and deceiving himself.

Washington gives a sterling performance as a deeply flawed unsympathetic character we are morally ambivalent about. His easy charm and confidence initially win us over. But each time he pulls some stunt to turn us away, so our emotions teeter-totter back and forth, just as they often do in real life for addicts. This is one of his best performances, certainly of recent years, and has been recognized by an Oscar nomination. Reilly, a relative unknown, turns in excellent work, stealing several scenes from him. Greenwood and Cheadle are solid. And John Goodman shows us as Harling Mays, Whip’s pusher and “friend”. A larger than life character, he brings some much needed humor to this film, as he did to Argo earlier last year.

Flight offers a rough and raw picture of the cycle that surrounds addiction, especially for the “functioning alcoholic” who is not some decrepit curb-dweller. The drugs and drinking addiction includes and starts with denial. There is no problem. It might be for someone else, but not for me, is the thinking. Such rationalization works for a while, sometimes a long while. But eventually something forces its way into our face. It might be an overdose and an awakening in hospital, as it was for Nicole. It might be a tox report, as it was for Whip. But that results in initial denial. It must be wrong.

Denial is swiftly followed by deception. And this deception comes in many forms and is both outward and inward focused.

In one powerful scene, Whip has returned to his childhood home in the country. Away from the hustle bustle he can recover alone, away from the cameras and the crowds. One of the first things he is does is flush away his drugs and pour out all his booze. He has bottles and bottles of it, all over the house, stashed in various places. He fills a large garbage bag with the empty bottles. He convinces himself he can quit cold turkey. That is the height of an addict’s self-deception.

To others, he appears sober. He tells Nicole and Charlie he has it under control. But he is lying to them, as they slowly discover. But even Charlie proposes deception, in his advice on how to address the committee hearing: “Remember, if they ask you anything about your drinking, it’s totally acceptable to say ‘I don’t recall’.” To which Whip replies, “Hey, don’t tell me how to lie about my drinking, okay? I know how to lie about my drinking. I’ve been lying about my drinking my whole life.”

However, lies and little sins like two empty miniature vodka bottles always come back to bite us. The Bible tells us that “he who pours out lies will not go free” (Prob. 19:5). It calls the devil “a liar and the father of lies” (Jn. 8:44). The Psalmist encourages us to “keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking lies” (Psa. 34:13). When we lie we build up a fiction that must be carefully maintained, and it takes huge amounts of energy to sustain that fiction. One little bottle can cause it come crashing down on our heads. Honesty is the better policy.

In a climactic scene, Whip succumbs once again to the devils he has tried to bottle and control. Once unbottled, they run riot. And one moment of temptation once again takes him down.

Control is a key issue for Whip. This successful pilot has control, or thinks he does, in all areas of his life. But in reality, he has no control. He has been controlled by his addiction.

The apostle Paul talks about control in his letter to the Romans. “For when we were controlled by the sinful nature, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in our bodies, so that we bore fruit for death” (Rom. 7:5). We struggle with being controlled by the old, sinful nature, and being controlled by the Spirit in new life in Christ. If we are following Jesus we “are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ” (Rom. 8:9). Even then, it is a battle that we cannot win on our own. But with the help of the Holy Spirit we can overcome temptation. As Paul says elsewhere, “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it” (1 Cor. 10:13). It is all a matter of control.

This leads to the powerful scene that shows the way to overcome addiction. It is not through control and protection; it is through confession.

Nicole found this out through her AA meetings. The participants introduce themselves via, “Hello, I am Nicole and I am an addict.” Confession forces our sin into the light of day. In this way, truth can overcome. This is very much like the opening verses of John’s first epistle: 
But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives. (1 Jn. 7-10) 
At the end, Whip utters the words, “God help me.” For all of us, and especially for addicts, he can and he does. But only if we let him.

Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs

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