Reviewed Books & Films

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Thursday, November 07, 2013

Flight: A Powerful and Popular Film on Addiction

APA The engaging film Flight, starring Denzel Washington as Whip, an airline pilot suffering from alcohol dependence, offers viewers a wide range of material to consider—powerful portrayal of addiction, realistic consequences of a disease, the struggle of recovery, emotional turmoil, and hope.

As Ronda Dearing and Molly Rath emphasize in their PsycCRITIQUES review, this film does not take the approach of most addiction films emphasizing the "why" of the addiction, such as abuse/trauma, parents with alcoholism, and/or persistent feelings of failure. Instead, the focus is on the present-day character of Whip, who is facing major challenges and displays his full personality—his addictive behaviors, his positive character strengths, and his struggle to make the right decisions. Thus, viewers see a more realistic, complex human being. Viewers are likely to have a range of reactions to the portrayal, for example, empathy, sympathy, admiration, disgust, anger, gratitude, and pride.

What were some of your emotional reactions to the portrayal of Whip? Did your feelings change as the film progressed?

The film recently won a Prism award for best substance abuse film because of its accuracy in the portrayal of an individual suffering this condition. Would you consider Denzel Washington's portrayal of addiction to be spot-on in terms of accuracy? What would you change?

Read the Review
ReviewAn Ordinary Day
By Ronda L. Dearing and Molly S. Rath
      PsycCRITIQUES, 2013 Vol 58(37)



After watching the film “ flight”. I thought the portrayal of Whip was quite accurate in the sense that he is highly dependent on alcohol and his actions were kind of regarded as hit or miss. Therefore, the miracle landing might not actually have been successful if Whip was not under the influence of alcohol. Despite his reckless behaviour in drinking, I thought it is unparalleled to compare whether this miraculous incident actually reflects anything about Whip. I believe this incident alone was a very unique situation where Whip was at the right place at the right time because if Whip was not drunk or was under the influence, he might not have done what he did by landing that plane in such a dramatic fashion. Thus, comparing Whip’s incident with the landing was nothing but a miracle and it is impossible to investigate its real effects.

My feelings did change slightly as the film progressed as Whip did show remorse and he did wanted to change. I thought the ending scene was particular enlightening when Whip was attempting to bridge his relationship with his son, whom visited him to talk about an application essay. “ the most fascinating person ive never met”. And His son begins by asking, "Who are you?" and Whip replies "That's a good question." I believe this is a very powerful scene because it shows a relationship that is being build upon and Whip in particularly gives off a sense of rebirth and a will to rediscover himself without the influence of any substances.

Sally lawson

"The most fascinating person that I've never met" - The title of the essay Whip's son was writing and also one of the most powerful lines in the movie.

I believe this title, encapsulates the essence of the lives of many seemingly high functioning addicts. They are able to maintain powerful and demanding Jobs however their personal and family lives are shrouded in shame, lies and deceit. They are very often fascinating people in high powered positions but their family does not see this, those closest to them are exposed to the addiction and suffer the lies and inadequacies of the addict.

"Flight", is a movie that presents the viewer with a true reflection of addiction, there is never any doubt that the main character, Whip, has a substance use disorder, he clearly meets the DSM-5 criteria (American Psychiatric Association, 2013) and struggles with sobriety even after the catastrophic airplane crash. He has a short period of sobriety immediately after the accident, where the viewer is left hopeful that this will be the event that 'turns around' his life and triggers recovery. However after he is confronted about the toxicology report that shows he was clearly under the influence of cocaine and alcohol while operating the flight, he justifies his behaviour and argues that the accident was caused by a faulty aircraft and that he was skilled enough to save 96 souls under impossible circumstances. The viewer is left with the question as to whether Whip would have been able to stay so calm, and employ the risky procedure that ultimately saved 96 individuals, had he not been under the influence of drugs and alcohol. This is a question many high powered executives are faced with when they make risky decisions on a daily basis while suffering a substance use disorder. It is also one of the reasons why treating 'high functioning addicts' can be very difficult - they don't view their addiction as a problem. In fact they often argue it is necessary and like Whip, they believe that they "choose to use", because their achievements lead to an increase in personal denial and they don't fit the stereotypical image of an addict (Benton, 2009).

The point at which Whip decides to end the lies,might very well be the last event in a series of events that trigger behaviour change, as quoted by Dearing & Rath, in their review "An ordinary day", however I believe that it was also the "aha" moment that many patients suffering with psychological problems need to achieve. This is the moment that they finally understand and accept the consequences of the problem plaguing them. It is the point that Whip's lies were no longer about him but would be destroying the legacy of someone he cared about. He finally understands the consequences of his behaviour and the consequences of what this final lie would mean.

Supporters of the 12 step program would challenge that Whip had "hit rock bottom" (Alcoholics Anonymous, 2001) and the movie ends with a prison scene clearing showing Whip as part of a 12 step program where he has accepted his addiction, and has tried to make amends to those he hurt while he was an addict.

This was a powerful film because it accurately addressed the issue of substance use disorders in a very accurate but non- stereotypical way. It makes you consider how many individuals maybe struggling daily with psychological problems but outwardly seem to be living fulfilled and successful lives.


Alcoholics Anonymous World Services. (2001a). Alcoholics Anonymous: The story of how
many thousands of men and women have recovered from alcoholism (4th ed.). New
York, NY: Author.

American Psychiatric association. (2013) Diagnostics and statistical manual of mental disorders, (5th Ed) Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.

Benton, S.A. (2009), Understanding the high functioning Alcoholic: Professional views and personal insights. Westpoint, Conn: Praeger Publishers.


I have not watched it yet but I like the way it has been made, as you have mentioned here.


From the outset, it is clear that our protagonist 'Whip Whitaker' is a substance abuser/ addict. Waking up hung over, he snorts cocaine, drinks the dregs of his beer and heads out the door with his pilot's uniform on.

The film succeeds in its depiction of alcoholism and how it ultimately sends the life of an otherwise highly successful pilot into a downward spiralling descent that crashes almost as magnanimously as the plane he was flying.

But this story is not about a hero pilot, it is about a psychologically unhealthy individual who works as a pilot. We also later find out that Whip's addictions have cost him his family. There is guilt in this relationship and it is clear that Whip does not reflect well on his behaviour in not being able to be there for them. Whip pushes away all those that try to help him and his faulty interpersonal beliefs, that people cannot be trusted to help, see him isolated throughout the majority of the movie.

As an audience member you cannot help but get caught up in his fight with alcohol. It is a compelling film about addiction for families who deal with the problem of addiction. Perhaps the depiction is so insightful and realistic as the screenwriter himself, John Gatins, has personal experience with addiction. Some of the accurate themes the movie captures are as follows:
- Negative consequences are often unclear to the addict, but can have devastating impacts on the lives of those around them that care for them.
- Addicts often misinterpret the ‘cause/effect’ cycle of the addiction that they are running away from the pain as opposed to the more likely fact that they were left because of their untreated illness.
- Their lives slowly start to fill up with more and more 'lies'. These 'lies' are covering, excusing and explaining away their behaviours and choices.
- That the addiction causes major disruptions in an addict’s life – even if they are able to ‘perform their work’
* The high performing addict that slips under the radar, goes unnoticed, untreated putting their own lives and often the lives of others at risk.
- It also shows how often people close to the addict are aware of the extent of the problem, but are unable to either do something to help or fail to report the problem as a result of their own personal relationships or agendas.
- Societies ‘reactions’ felt through our own personal opinions while watching a successful ‘high performing addict’ verses a down and out ‘junkie’.
- It also taps into the stigma and stereotypes of addicts – When he reached for the bottle, were you expecting him just to have the one? ‘He had got so far!’

From a personal perspective I believe that 'Flight' is a fairly accurate portrayal of many of the central problems of addiction. The movie conveys the message that recovery is not just avoiding punishment nor is it simply making a conscious decision to stop. Recovery is a complex issue that takes time. It requires a great deal of personal strength, accepting responsibility and acknowledging the fact that you have a disease. I hope that this message will be clear from watching this film.

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Editor of PsycCRITIQUES

Danny Wedding, PhD

Chair of Behavioral Sciences,
College of Medicine,
American University of Antigua

Associate Editors of PsycCRITIQUES

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