Sunday, November 4, 2012

Zemeckis portrayal of addiction in "Flight"

I went to see Robert Zemeckis film Flight starring Denzel Washington as pilot Whip Whitaker yesterday.  Spoiler alert - if you are a person who likes to see new films knowing nothing about the plot - stop reading this post right here.  I work at a large residential addiction facility and ran into one of my colleagues in the lobby.  He told me he was there to see the film because it was a good film about addiction.  I was completely surprised.  Robert Zemeckis made the film that I have seen more times than any other - Forrest Gump.  I generally see anything that Denzel Washington does.  Like everybody else, I like his work and he does not make any bad movies.  His last transportation themed movie Unstoppable cast him the role of a wise engineer trying to stop a runaway train.  The trailers I had seen for Flight suggested a similar role.  I expected a heroic pilot with a similar outcome.

From the outset, it is obvious that Whip Whitaker has a tremendous problem.  He wakes up hung over, snorts some cocaine, drinks what is left of a beer and heads out the door with his pilots uniform on.  Almost incredibly he proceeds to inspect his commercial airliner, fly it through extreme turbulence, drinks some additional vodka in flight and takes a 26 minute nap before the critical scene in the movie where he performs a complicated series of maneuvers to save most of the crew and passengers from a mechanical failure.  Subsequent analysis proves that he is the only pilot who could have saved the plane.  But even those facts are not enough to preserve his fleeting hero status.

Throughout the film we see Whip drinking in an uncontrolled manner.  There is some ambivalence.  He gets out of the hospital post crash and goes to the family farm where he proceeds to dump out all of the beer and hard liquor.  He dumps out his stash of marijuana.  There is the implicit recognition that somewhere there are toxicology results that he is going to have to deal with.  As that part of the plot unfolds, he resumes drinking, smoking marijuana, and snorting cocaine with a vengeance.  In one scene he walks out of a liquor store with a case of beer and what appears to be a three liter bottle of vodka.  As soon as he gets into the car he is drinking the vodka like water and drives around with an open can of beer.  There are several scenes where the interpersonal toll of alcoholism is evident with his potential love interests, his son and ex-wife, and friends and business associates who are rooting for him.  The business associates have a common interest in seeing that he is exonerated for any crimes related to substance abuse.

This film succeeds in its depiction of alcoholism and how it hijacks the life of an otherwise highly successful pilot.  On the surface he is a "functional alcoholic."  His friend and former fellow Navy pilot describes him as a "heavy drinker" rather than an alcoholic   He appears to be successful in one aspect of his life but it does not take long to figure out even that is a charade.  He can't tolerate even the suggestion that he has a problem on the one hand and on the other makes the promise that he will stop and he can stop at any time.  He walks out of an AA meeting when the speaker asks people to raise their hand if they are an alcoholic.  There is a contrast between Whip and his girlfriend Nicole illustrating that addiction has no socioeconomic boundaries.  There were so many scenes in this film that captured the problems of addiction.

As an audience member you cannot help getting caught up in his fight with alcohol.  He is after-all the hero of this film and that is firmly established in the first 20 minutes.  You are hoping that he will not pick up another drink.  You are left with a situation where the hero will be dealt with according to technicalities.  His heroism does not count.  The only thing that matters is that he has an addiction.

This is a compelling film about addiction for families who deal with this problem on a daily basis and for those who do not.  It accurately portrays the central problems of addiction and recovery as not just avoiding punishment or making a conscious decision to stop.  It is a lot more than that and hopefully that message will be clear from watching this film.

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA

References (Doug Sellman has done a great job of distilling out the scientific points of addiction):

1. Sellman D. Ten things the alcohol industry won't tell you about alcohol. Drug Alcohol Rev. 2010 May;29(3):301-3. PubMed PMID: 20565523.

2. Sellman D. The 10 most important things known about addiction. Addiction. 2010 Jan;105(1):6-13. Epub 2009 Aug 27. PubMed PMID: 19712126.

3.  Alcohol Action New Zealand web site (various resources)

4.  Alcoholics Anonymous.  Grounded.  Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, New York City, 2001.


  1. Thanks for writing this. I agree with everything you mentioned and appreciate the links. I was also impressed by how accurately the movie portrayed the folly of impaired professionals whose sobriety is a matter of public safety. How work life is going well, while home life is a mess etc. etc. The way the flight attendants (could also be nurses) each insulated him in their own way. When he used more insanity to cure insanity (the scene with John Goodman waking him up the morning) a lot of people laughed because it's so outrageous, but a lot of people laughed because it's so outrageously realistic. There were multiple truths, as there always will be that can't be used to negate one another. "I never made a mistake at work, I never hurt anyone..." Finally, I was so grateful they juxtaposed the story line of the girl, quietly getting sober and making good decisions for her recovery.

  2. I saw this film as an adult child of an alcoholic, and it was very realistic, so much that I broke down in tears as it ended. The denial, arrogance, and functionality of an alcoholic who by all appearances is doing just fine, this film exposes the truth of the disease of an alcoholic. And sadly, it takes a lot for them to stop. A lot never do. I pray and hope my parent does before its too late and something tragic happens to them or to someone else. The scene in the beginning had so many parallels to the meaning of control. Alcoholics have none, they only think they do. Great movie, I wish it was up for best picture. Really important film.