Truth and consequences in flying drunk, or: Fly me, Denzel Washington
I enjoyed "Flight," for the most part. I wasn't sure what Hollywood had still to tell us about the dangers of alcoholism, and I was concerned it would turn into a big-ticket version of an Afterschool Special. But as most everyone recognizes, Denzel Washington is a terrific actor, deeply felt and not hard on the eyes. Watching him be a bastard almost doesn't work, but then there's "Training Day" and I remember he can do laughing menace quite well.
For those who haven't seen the film, "Flight" starts out with Denzel's airline pilot having a terrible no good very bad day in which he's high on coke and alcohol when he sits in the pilot's chair, but since he's a functioning alcoholic he's able to get away with not seeming intoxicated, not even after he dumps two mini-bottles of vodka into his OJ before strapping on his belt. Anyway, as you've probably seen in trailers, something about the plane goes haywire and he has to land it without engines, first flying literally upside down and then gliding over a church (bye-bye steeple) into a field. A few die, many are injured, but eventually everyone determines that it would have been a lot worse without his fancy maneuvering. The rest of the film is his stubbornly refusing to give up drinking and facing the questions, accusations and tribunals from survivors and examiners.
But one question — not so much a problem — stuck with me: Was the screenwriter trying, in some fashion, to suggest that perhaps if he hadn't been intoxicated he wouldn't have been relaxed enough to do the fancy maneuvers that allowed him to land that plane? Studies have shown that often the survivors of a plane crash are the ones who were sleeping or otherwise intoxicated; they don't clench so hard at the moment of impact and that keeps their bodies from shattering. (I believe this came up in the Jeff Bridges film "Fearless.") (Doctors, let me know if my science is mistaken.)
So yesterday, after the Oscars were announced, I was fortunate to talk to one nominee: The writer from "Flight," John Gatins, and I asked him that question. He answered at first without an answer — the "I've gotten asked that a lot" — but then we had an interesting discussion over the topic. It wasn't necessarily his intention to imply that, but he did recall having discussions with the director Robert Zemeckis on the set about whether that was a way to interpret the events as they played out.
I think it's safe to say that no one really wants anyone with whom we place our trust and safety and lives in intoxicated folks, and I wonder with the legalization of marijuana making its way through the courts whether we'll see a few cautionary tales on the screen about that. But in the meantime, for a writer to leave such a big question open — a writer who ultimately gets an Oscar nomination — is that a mistake to not have addressed it, or is it writer's prerogative?
I'm still up in the air about it (no pun intended). Anyone have thoughts? Should a writer close all of his loopholes? Or is a decisive ending just dull writing?