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Alcoholism and Hollywood: In Denzel Washington's Flight, Saving the Passengers Was the Easy Part

02/05/2013 02:39 pm ET | Updated Apr 12, 2013

A funny thing happened roughly half way through my viewing of two-time Oscar-winner Denzel Washington's latest movie, Flight. I suddenly realized that I wasn't watching a "typical" comedy or drama. Flight belongs to a relatively small but growing genre of films -- many of them either bombs at the box office or with critics -- that depict a man or woman struggling with alcoholism and addiction, then finding a pathway to salvation and grace. In a word, it's a "recovery" movie.

But it's hardly a typical one. In contrast to Clean and Sober (1988), When a Man Loves a Woman (1994), or 28 Days (2000), none of Flight's pre-release publicity suggests that its central character will hit the classic alcoholic "bottom," and wind up -- in this case -- in jail. In the movie trailer, there's stunning footage of Washington, in his role as commercial airline pilot "Whip" Whitaker, flying a commercial jumbo jet upside down in a miraculous and successful effort to land the plane safely. And while there's certainly hint of trouble to come -- post-crash drug testing reveals that Whip was drunk during the entire incident, which, in theory, could earn him a long prison sentence -- the trailer, to maintain suspense, leaves the audience guessing about what happens next, and why.

[SPOILER ALERT: Important plot details are revealed below]

Most of the movie's dramatic tension consists of Whip's lawyer and friends struggling to get him to stop drinking long enough to appear at a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) hearing sober to exonerate himself. He has the good fortune of retaining a high-powered, Johnny Cochran-style attorney, played by Don Cheadle, who manages to get his incriminating toxicology report thrown out on a technicality. But Whip's a full-blown alcoholic who can't control his drinking, and like nearly every alcoholic in the throes of the disease, he refuses to admit it -- even if his entire professional career and beloved pilot's license are at stake.

Whip, though, does have one potential angel in his midst. While recovering from his injuries in the hospital, he befriends a suicidal waif, Nicole (evocatively portrayed by the relatively unknown long-time TV actress Kelly Reilly) and decides to look her up after he's released. She's a fellow substance abuser and they quickly bond, especially after he saves her from a nasty eviction. However, they're clearly on different paths: she wants to "get clean" -- he doesn't. She's fond of him, but on the advice of her friends in AA, which Whip refuses to join, she decides to leave him. He's left to fend for himself -- his drinking worse than ever.

What happens next is first hilarious -- then deeply moving. Drunk and hungover on the eve of his testimony, Whip's long-time drug dealer Harling -- played with outsized comedic flair by John Goodman -- is called in to "rescue" Whip with a high-powered cocaine speed-ball. Whip's lawyers are dumbfounded, but when Whip snaps out of his stupor, he seems ready for the hearing. All looks good, in fact, until his interrogator (played by Melissa Leo) asks him about three empty vodka miniatures found on the airplane that could only have belonged to a member of his crew. Whip, of course, drank those bottles, but one crew member -- his mistress and a flight attendant who died during the crash -- is an easy scapegoat. All Whip has to do is finger her as the culprit, and he's home free.

But it turns out, he can't. As the woman's enlarged image appears on a screen in front of him, he desperately tries to avoid answering the question, but fails. Finally he blurts out, "I drank those bottles," and proceeds to confess that he was drunk all three days leading up to the flight. Then, after a dramatic pause, he declares: "Hell, I'm drunk right now." The hearing room erupts in bedlam.

The movie picks up the story 13 months later, with Whip now in prison leading an AA meeting. He's beaming brightly, as the other prisoners listen with rapt attention to a man who freely admits: "All I had to do was lie, and I could have kept it all. But I would have lost my soul." Anyone who's ever heard about or attended AA meetings will immediately relate to Whip's heartfelt but matter-of-fact sharing. Both the words and the tone have the ring of authenticity.

But Flight, to its credit, avoids the preachy tone and formulaic ending that typically mars recovery films; he even does them one better by offering no schmaltzy, feel-good resolution. Contrast that to When a Man Loves a Woman, for example, which dwells at great length on Meg Ryan's alcoholic travails and the pain she causes her husband and children. But once Ryan "gets" recovery, she's quickly reunited romantically with her husband, played by Andy Garcia. And in 28 Days, which takes place largely in the confines of an alcoholic treatment center, but still plays like a romantic comedy, an alcoholic journalist played by Sandra Bullock pulls through relatively unscathed.

Initially, Flight seems headed in this same direction. Right after the AA meeting, Whip receives a surprise visit. It's from his son, the young high school graduate who'd thrown his father out of the family home when Whip tried to visit the boy's mother in a failed attempt at reconciliation right after the plane crash. They're all smiles now, but there's a catch. It turns out that Whip's son needs help writing his college entrance essay. The topic? "The most fascinating man I've never met." Whip, eager to please, agrees to help, but he's shocked when his son pulls out a tape recorder, leans in, and pointedly asks: "Who ARE you?" Whip smiles nervously, and says: "That's a fascinating question." The movie then fades to black.

There's a powerful and disturbing message here. Flight suggests that the real tragedy of alcoholism is the alcoholic's own profound "flight" -- from self. And it makes clear that living without authenticity and presence leaves others with a deep emotional void. That void can't be filled up with a few hugs or apologies, a romantic kiss, or mere promises of a better future. Whip's son, while happy, clearly remains skeptical -- and he wants answers. And it's far from clear that Whip's wife is ever coming back to the man who's so deeply betrayed her.

Washington -- who's tackled difficult subjects before, of course -- should be applauded for making such an entertaining Hollywood movie that ends on such an atypical note. The unusual screenplay was produced by actor/writer John Gatins, who got sober at 25 and shopped his script around for over a decade before long-time director Robert Zemeckis decided to take a chance on his work. The film is dedicated to Washington's long-time agent, Ed Limot -- who died before the movie was completed, and who reportedly strongly urged his client to accept the part as Whip. Luckily for movie-goers, he did. With Washington's gritty performance -- the most harrowing, perhaps, since Michael Keaton's in Clean and Sober -- and such a strong supporting cast, don't be surprised if Flight's final touchdown is somewhere in Oscar-Land.

Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.