Movie is a Flight From Realistic to Ridiculous

December 1, 2012 / 14 Comments

Denzel Washington in Flight Photo courtesy Paramount

A selection of small servings of alcoholic beverages, flavored vodkas maybe or micro brewed beers, is called a Flight. That’s something to keep in mind as you watch the new movie of the same name, staring Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, John Goodman and Don Cheadle. And I say this because if you think this is a movie about the other kind of flight, the kind that takes us from place to place safely through the air in relative comfort, you’d be wrong, wrong, wrong.

Nora Marshall, steeped in aviation since her early days as a flight attendant through her 28 year career as an air safety investigator, put it simply, Flight is a “great movie about addiction and with outstanding acting” she told me in an email, but “not a movie that anyone with airline and/or accident investigative experience can take seriously.”


Denzel Washington is his amazing self, believable in a pilot’s uniform though I sincerely hope his middle-aged spread was added to make him look more like an authentic pilot, rather than a sign that this beautiful human being is getting plump! The crash scenes are harrowing and mostly realistic – even Nora, who was chief of human performance and survival factors at the National Transportation Safety Board admits that.

Earlier this year I wrote several stories about how Flight and other aviation-related dramas are made. One article appears in the current issue of Airways. So knowing how important it was to the filmmaker, instrument-rated private pilot, Robert Zemeckis to create visual realism, it was striking how little attention was paid to keeping the crash investigation accurate.

Washington, as Capt. Whip Whitaker is an alcoholic airline pilot who saves the day and most of the passengers on his flight when his plane loses elevator control, a’la Alaska Airlines Flight 261.  He flies the airplane upside down until he finds a field for his crash landing. Hence, he is a hero. And then it becomes clear the airman is a substance abuser.

To Whitaker, the fact that his pilot skills saved lives is all that counts, an all-too-common attitude that posits, outcome is evidence of correct actions. Not.

The unbelievable section really gets going when Capt. Whitaker meets his lawyer, Cheadle, who also represents the pilots’ union and the airline. Conflict of interest much? 

Incredulity continues when everyone else associated with the accident is interviewed by the NTSB except for the man who was flying left seat. Capt. Whitaker is holed up in his late-papa’s cabin drinking truly preposterous amounts of alcohol and tinkering with daddy’s crop duster in the barn.

Washington and Cheadle in the probable cause hearing scene

I knew we were in a uncontrolled dive when Whitaker learns that his lawyer’s fancy footwork has resulted in the NTSB’s disregarding the pilot’s blood alcohol level samples and convinced them to include “acts of God” as a contributing factor. “Acts of God?”  Shut up! At this point I inadvertently laughed out loud, causing my usually indulgent husband to tell me to “shut up”.

On the plus side, the captain does have moments in which he does the right thing – for the right reasons. The film pays tribute to  the real life safety advocate presently in command of the NTSB, Deb Hersman (played by Melissa Leo) and one only wishes there were more characters in real life as funny as the hysterically wacky John Goodman.  

Still, after spending two hours on the journey I left the theater knowing I’d been flying someplace between real and ridiculous. Not a flight actually, but an assorted sampling of flavors that didn’t add up to much.

Categories: Flying Lessons, Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

14 responses to “Movie is a Flight From Realistic to Ridiculous”

  1. BW says:

    Fun you used Nora Marshall in your Blog. Nora indeed comes from a position of knowing. A good friend of mine who flies for Delta was blown over by how unrealistic this movie was. Substance abuse aside, the flying was said to be ridiculous. How much would it cost to hire a consultant who knows something about the industry? I would think Denzel is embarrassed, or out of touch. I hear some actors research their parts.


  2. Please don't burst my bubble about Denzel. First Alec Baldwin, now him? But you're right about Nora, she's the real deal!

  3. In contrast to the fictional "hero" pilot played by Mr. Washington, there is a story of a real airline pilot who becomes a hero through redemption and grace. Lyle Prouse is a true hero to all who understand the struggles and victories a real man faces.

    Captain Prouse demonstrated courage, perciverence and dignity in his journey from fallen aviator to counselor, mentor and role model. He has been the inspiration for many pilots to choose victory over defeat and life over death.

    Airline pilots everywhere owe a debt of gratitude to Lyle for the dedication he has demonstrated to his profession and his fellow pilots.

    You can read a synopsis of Lyle's story here.

  4. Anonymous says:

    It's a movie! Since when did Hollywood have anything to do with realism? I report on aviation and I enjoyed this movie. Was it great? No. Was it time well-spent? Yup.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Yes, expect to suspend your belief when you walk into the cinema next time. The movie wasn't meant to test your knowledge about aviation accident investigations, but meant to entertain the general public with a great story about redemption. I'd be embarrassed too if I was sitting next to you in the theater. Seriously? You took the film too seriously!

  6. Anonymous says:

    I haven't sent the movie yet, but am better prepared for what to expect, lower expectations and all.
    Your comments do serve as a reminder that the aviation community may not be considered expansive enough to cater to by the entertainment industry. Books like "Airframe" represent authors/storytellers who do the research and create great stories. The general public are oblivious about aviation in general, so coming from a story teller whose only research was "can big plane fly upside down" I guess entertaining is the best you could hope for.

  7. Anonymous says:

    As the 1st anon said, as a movie it is meant to entertain the general public, not serve as a documentary on accident investigation or the legalities of such. You sound like the type of person who would scream "that's impossible!" at a CGI sequence in a Star Trek or Aliens movie. It was just that, a MOVIE, not a how-to on NTSB procedures. Lighten up and enjoy Hollywood for what it is…fun entertainment.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Couldn't it have been written to be somewhat more factual, though, and still have been as entertaining? I don't think they'd have sacrificed much in the way of watchability by striving for more realism.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Did the author even see the movie? The aircraft in the barn was a Cessna 172, not a cropduster. It even had "Cessna 172" written on the side. The author of this article was so busy picking apart technicalities that the average viewer with no knowledge of accident investigations (the film's target audience) would know or care about, that she gets basic details of the movie wrong while criticising it for getting things wrong. This is strange considering how she attacks the movie as ridiculous for lack of accuracy.

    The main premise of the film was not how accurately they can inform people about NTSB procedures, but about a very talented, yet flawed human being battling his demons. As someone who's known more than one person with similar issues, I can tell you the movie excelled. If it were a documentary on how to run an accident investigation, then the movie can rightly be called "ridiculous", but as a human story told by extremely talened actors and crew, the film is outstanding.

  10. ChefNick says:

    I thought Flight was quite ridiculous on all counts; the "jackscrew/hardover" part of the movie, which was just about the only technical reason for the crash alluded to, actually happened to two airliners with 100% fatal results (I can't remember the exact incidents now) but could not by any stretch redeem the plot.

    And certainly nothing has ever been solved by flying a large jetliner "inverted." I guess that was just stuck in there to add high drama — guess how the ingenious pilot solved the hardover problem? The plane was being forced DOWN by the stuck rudder so he simply flew it upside down so the plane would fly "up!" Very, very silly.

    Also, in the confines of a jet cockpit, alcohol fumes are quickly going to fill the airspace. No one could possibly not notice a pilot with even a trace of alcohol on their breath, and that person would certainly not be the first officer, who would undoubtedly have the offending captain removed immediately, especially if they were strangers. Now TWO pilots who go on a binge and then fly the same plane the next day . . . THAT scenario is believable. Well, it has to be, because it's actually happened.

    But let me tell you, from direct experience: a far more harrowing tale could have been told about an air traffic controller coming into work bombed out of his skull and pushing planes around on a computer screen. Why do I say this? Because I knew one such fellow . . . who regularly reported for work at Oakland Center in the mid 80s after a night of Bacardi 151 and cocaine . . . to me, that's far more horrifying — and likely to go undiscovered, if not unreported (if half the other controllers are in practically the same state). Why don;t you make a movie about THAT, Mr. Zemeckis? A pilot one-fisting miniature vodkas into a bottle of orange juice unnoticed by flight crew is so absurd it's laughable, considering that at the time, probably every single storage unit in the galley would have been in full lockdown — why were vodka bottles sitting on the counter after a terrifying five minutes of turbulence?

    Well, I doth protest too much, as they say, but there were holes in this movie's plot big enough to fly an A-380 and a Dreamliner wingtip-to-wingtip through.

  11. Authenticity and plausibility are possible in fiction, but they take work. It took several rounds of feedback and rewriting with the help of 5 pilots, 2 instructors, 2 engineers, and 2 air ambulance operators to get the loss-of-rudder scenario in Chipset (Gesher Press, 2012) right. Was it worth it? For most readers, maybe not, but for those in the industries–well I hope so.

    –Larry Constantine (pen name, Lior Samson)

  12. Steve Lester says:

    It was a Hollywood attempt to entertain and tell a story with a perspective of real people with addiction. If you want a documentary, you need to go elsewhere.

    From the very beginning, the heading assigned by ATC was suspect. Did you catch that part? I did, but it's a movie. Hate to tell you, but reality TV is not real either. Smiles and keep up your interest!!

  13. Anonymous says:

    I realize the flying inverted is not possible but I have watched the crash sequence about six times already and enjoyed it every time. It's entertaining. The movie is obviously not for aviation experts.
    I sell wristwatches, so I notice watch-related mistakes in movies just as a real pilot would see everything that's wrong with Flight. In Argo, for example, Tony Mendez wears a Rolex Deepsea that has only been produced for the last few years, but the story takes place around 1980. Is it ridiculous? Did I immediately notice the mistake and point it out to my wife? You bet I did. Did this in any way diminish my enjoyment of the movie? Absolutely not.

  14. Barbara says:

    The pilot downed a vodka to stave off detoxing / being hungover. A far along alcoholic needs “hair of the dog that bit him” just to function. What was ridiculous was that fellow airline employees looked the other way. There’s no way they would be willing to, for many reasons: 1 they have to take up the slack for their reduced capacity crew member 2 Sloppy, unprofessional conducts is a very bad reflection on all of them 3 The passengers’ lives are being endangered 4 Their own lives are being endangered. 5 In the event of an all-out disaster with massive loss of life, if it were ever proved that the pilot was flying drunk, the airline – their employer – could be sued into a smoking shell and then boycotted by the flying public for the next three decades. When the character of cabin attendant Margaret was made (written and directed) to shake her head with a bemused. affectionate smile at seeing the captain passed out in his chair, I wanted to throw something at the screen.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Enter to Win

Want to receive some free swag from Christine? Sign up for the mailing list!