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Shahrouz Dehgahi, PharmD Candidate

Shari N. Allen, PharmD, BCPP

Student Perspective of Flight

The movie Flight not only depicts the crash of a plane, but also the crash a man experiences after his high on drugs and alcohol. The protagonist Captain Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) experiences these crashes, some due to his addiction and others due to mechanical failures of his plane. Flight is a 2012 American Drama that was nominated for two Academy Awards at the 85th Academy Awards. The plot starts with the portrayal of the protagonist’s life style as an alcoholic who lives on the edge of life disregarding the consequences of his abuse with alcohol, drugs, and lies. The beginning scene opens with an alarm clock going off at 7:14 a.m. coincidently with the song “Alcohol” by Barenaked Ladies.  The lyrics of this song illustrate the struggle Captain Whitaker is going through. A line from the song, “But now I know that there's a time and there's a place where I can choose to walk the fine line between self-control and self-abuse,” describes the entire story of this movie in my opinion. 

Although the opening scene begins with alcohol, drugs, and sex, reality soon settles in when Captain Whitaker wakes up to a phone call from his ex-wife. Still high on cocaine and drunk from alcohol, Captain Whitaker reveals one of his other traits of an addict: pathological lying. He also declines any responsibly for his son, and shifts the issue away from himself. Quickly offended by his ex-wife pointing out his lies, the phone call ends abruptly. Clearly not functional to fly a passenger plane, he resorts to a quick fix by snorting another line of cocaine. Visibly still not one-hundred percent, Captain Whitaker sprays mouth-freshener in his mouth to rid the smell of alcohol as he stumbles up the stairs to fly the plane; SouthJet 227 from Orlando to Atlanta. Lacking a conscious regard for his impairment, Captain Whitaker confidently greets his copilot Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty) and proceeds to fly the plane. Ken quickly senses the Captain's impairment but is reluctant to report the problem. Amidst the stormy weather and impaired Captain, Ken can only hope and pray for a safe landing. Clouded by a false sense of confidence, Captain Whitaker orders his copilot to turn off the autopilot because he is "going to fly this plane today." 

The Captain quickly rewards himself with another drink of vodka after he safely brings the plane out of the stormy weather and into cruise mode. His delusion of invisibility and confidence clouds his judgment of any consequences caused by the actions of his addiction.  After taking a twenty-six minute nap, Captain Whitaker awakes once again to a harsh reality as the plane suddenly loses control and goes into a fourteen thousand feet dive. This part of the movie is where the heroic side of Captain Whip Whitaker is portrayed. His instinct of a veteran pilot kicks in right away, and he takes full control of the situation again with confidence. Not only is the Captain doing his part of flying the plane, but he also coaches his flight crew through every step of their mission to land the plane safely in any way possible. Up until this point of the movie, the Captain only acted in a selfish manner with no regard to anyone else. This heroic act of landing the plane as safely as possible might change the perception of the audience towards him. 

The same initial perception is shared by Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle) who is the big shot lawyer for Captain Whitaker. His initial perception of Captain Whitaker is, “a drunk, arrogant, scumbag,” but once he realizes that the Captain landed the plane with almost no casualties, he is in awe of him. While still celebrated as a hero but with his dark secret of flying the plane fully intoxicated and high on cocaine, Captain Whitaker decides to get his act together.  He pours out all the liquor and beer he possesses and goes into isolation. On the surface Whitaker had become a national hero, but behind the curtains there is the matter of the blood test performed on Whitaker after he was pulled unconscious from the wreckage. Reality slaps Captain Whitaker in the face when his lawyer tells him about the toxicology report. Unable to deal with reality and face the consequences of his actions, Captain Whitaker quickly reverts to his old character and seeks the comfort of alcohol and a female companion he met at the hospital. Nicole Maggen (Kelly Reilly), who is struggling with addiction herself, finds comfort with the Captain and moves into isolation with him. The difference between the addictions of these two characters is that Nicole realizes that she has an addiction and is ready to go into rehab, while the Captain is in denial and claims that his love for alcohol is a choice. His denial and refusal to get help ultimately drives Nicole apart from the Captain. 

A last confrontation with his ex-wife, son, police, and the media pushes the Captain into the corner where he finally seeks help from Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood), a friend and union leader for the pilots. Surprisingly, the Captain stays sober for nine days, two hours and twenty-six minutes.  Only one night is left until his hearing with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) before he can bury any last intoxication accusations that occurred during the flight. No addiction will go untested unless all temptations are eliminated. An addiction is like a virus that cannot be cured but can only be controlled.  Once you lose control, the virus will take over once again. In an unfortunate event, an open window, unlocked door, and a refrigerator full of alcohol in the adjacent hotel room presented such temptations to the Captain. Like a true addict, the Captain seized the opportunity to relieve himself with alcohol. With only forty-five minutes left until his federal hearing, Charlie and Hugh find him faced down on the bathroom floor drunk. Clueless and defeated, Charlie and Hugh are left at the mercy of a drunk who once again, conveniently suggests a quick fix to the problem; a couple lines of cocaine to erase any physical signs of intoxication and to make the Captain alert for his federal hearing. Within several minutes of almost throwing his entire life away, the Captain takes full control of the situation once again. 

Lie after lie, the Captain abolishes any last doubt of him having any fault for the crash during the hearing. It is not until one last question where he is asked to give his simple opinion about his deceased colleague, Katrina, in regards to the empty vodka bottles that were discarded on the plane. Staring at the photo of Katrina, the Captain struggles with his conscience. If he lies and blames Katrina for having taken the vodka bottles, Katrina would be remembered as an alcoholic and he would be the hero. If he admits to drinking the vodka, then he will surely have to face the consequences he has fled from thus far. Captain Whitaker has now arrived at a crossing point where he can choose to walk the fine line of self-control or self-abuse. He chooses to walk the path of self-control by owning up to everything and admitting to his addiction. This is the hardest decision an addict has to make because not only is the addict admitting to his/her guilt, but is also giving up his/her right to hide behind their addiction. By giving up his addiction, Captain Whitaker physically imprisoned himself but mentally freed himself from an alternate reality that was overshadowing who he really was. A hero is one who is distinguished for their courage and noble abilities, and is not perfect but is able to identify and strive to improve their weaknesses. Captain Whitaker may not be a hero to some people, but he certainly became a hero and a savior to his addiction.


Psychiatric Perspective of Flight

From the opening scene to the closing scene, it is evident that Captain Whip Whitaker has a problem with drugs and alcohol. Whip is a pilot for a major airline and seems to fly better and possess more confidence while under the influence. The airplane that Whip is piloting is experiencing significant turbulence and while his co-pilot is nervous, worried, and anxious, Whip does not seem to be phased, but he is also drunk and high on cocaine. Just when all looks okay, upon landing, the plane begins to have more trouble. The entire time Whip is cool, calm, and collected but this time, it isn’t enough. Whip force lands the plane into an open field, killing multiple passengers, flight attendants, and injuring many including himself. 

As much as he tries to deny his responsibility in the plane crash, make excuses, and blame it on mechanical problems, Whip knows that being under the influence may have played a contributing factor in this crash. He associates drugs and alcohol with the plane crashing and the death of many. Initially this association is enough to make Whip abstain from alcohol and drugs. Unfortunately this does not last for long. Whip is at a restaurant bar, sees a drink, and like many alcoholics who abstain for days, months, years, he takes one sip and falls back into alcoholism.

As the movie progresses, those around Whip enable him. They lie for him, change his toxicology report, ensure him that the plane crash was indeed a mechanical error, and portray him in the media as a hero. As a result Whip continues to drink. Whip meets Nicole while hospitalized after the plane crash. They begin a relationship with each other and while they are both alcoholics and addicted to drugs, Nicole admits and knows she has a problem. Nicole seeks help. Despite the evidence all around him Whip continues to deny his addictions. This continued denial hurts those around him the most.

Prior to the trial for the plane crash Whip abstains from alcohol for 9 days. The night before the trial, Whip is staying in a hotel. All triggers for his alcoholism are removed, so he thinks. The hotel room next door is mistakenly left unlocked. He enters the room and discovers the refrigerator stocked with alcohol. At this point Whip has a choice, drink or not drink. Just when you think Whip finally learns, he succumbs to his addiction again and drinks every bottle of alcohol in that refrigerator. He is incoherent and unable to function the morning of his trial, until he is supplied with cocaine. Once Whip gets a few hits of cocaine, he’s back. He’s ready for court.

While in court Whip is faced with the opportunity to point to his addiction as the probable cause of the crash, or point to the fault of another crew member. This opportunity would allow him to serve no jail time, but Whip finally sees. He proclaims in his own words, “I’m a drunk.” While Whip Whitaker knows that he will always have an addiction, once he makes the choice to face it, despite being locked up, he is free. Flight is a prime example of addiction, the denial of such, and how environmental triggers contribute to the disease. While the movie successfully depicts the downside of addiction, it also portrays the upside, recovery.

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