My wife and I did something last Friday that we rarely do anymore. We had a date. It was our anniversary, after all. So, we sent the kids upstairs and watched a movie that did not involve animated talking animals! But what we thought was going to be just an evening of distracting entertainment ended up being a striking portrayal of the human condition.
Let me say up front that I hesitate to recommend this movie. (In fact, I hesitate to even admit that I watched it.) Flight, starring Denzel Washington, is disturbingly graphic and even raunchy in a few places – much more so than it needs to be to adequately tell the story. It is definitely not suited for children and maybe not even for adults. That said, the fictional story does feel strangely true to life.
The main character is “Whip” Whipman, a seasoned airline pilot. We learn something very important about captain Whipman in the opening scene: he is an alcoholic and a drug user. Just a couple of hours before climbing into the cockpit for a flight he downs a couple of bottles of booze and snorts a line of cocaine.
But once the flight is underway we learn something else very important about him: he is an incredibly competent pilot. When the plane experiences a major mechanical malfunction and goes into an uncontrolled nose dive, Captain Whipman performs a maneuver that no one else could even imagine by flying the plane upside down. He manages to regain partial control and crash lands in a field. Six people die in the crash, but everyone from investigators to the media agree that under the circumstances it is a miracle that 96 souls survived. Captain Whipman is hailed as a hero.
Almost, that is. Blood samples collected at the scene showed that “Whip” was legally intoxicated and high at the time of the crash. As the investigation into the crash begins, the prevailing question is whether he will be prosecuted and sent to jail, or lauded and remembered as one of the greatest pilots ever. As the story of that question unfolds, we see Whip go into a personal tail spin. His drinking worsens, and he threatens to destroy the few relationships he has left in life.
If you can look past its graphic nature, the movie is compelling because there are no true heroes. Captain Whipman and the characters who surround him all demonstrate admirable qualities at times, and yet they are all also tragically flawed. His lawyer is sharp and bright, yet he obscures the truth by maneuvering the legal system to have Whip’s blood test thrown out on a technicality. Whip’s union representative is loyal and faithful, yet out of his loyalty he tries to cover Whip’s tracks. Whip’s ex-wife is trying to raise their son to be a responsible adult, yet at times she comes off looking like a money-grabbing opportunist. Everybody in the story struggles and most of the time fails to do the right thing. And yet, everybody in the story manages at least once in a while to do some good. Everybody manages at some point to demonstrate competency in some area of life.
If you like your morality served straight-up, with black and white categories like “good” and “bad,” then this movie will disappoint you. There are no unadulterated heroes. But then, that is true of life in general. None of us are truly good – not in the way we think. We like to think of ourselves as the good guys. We like to think that we all got to where we are in life because of our skill, charm, intelligence and integrity. And at various moments we have all demonstrated such qualities. We are capable of doing great good.
And yet at other times we have also been deceptive, dishonest, and disingenuous. We have gotten where we are in life in part by climbing over others and manipulating the system to our advantage. Just consider what thoughts come to your mind if I but mention the name of one of your adversaries or enemies. The darkness in us is darker than we want to admit.
This is where the gospel is so central to our lives. Our only hope lies not in the prospect of us finally getting things straightened out or us finally getting our act together. Our hope lies not in our ability to prove our goodness or our competency. Our hope lies in the fact that while we are still sinners Christ died for us. Our only hope lies in us finally getting honest about our broken condition and opening ourselves to grace. The only thing that makes us right with God is the blood of Jesus Christ, not our feigned goodness.
Spoiler alert. Captain Whipman never finds Jesus, but he does finally get honest about his life. He finally admits all the lies he has been telling himself and admits that he is a drunk, and that his skill as a pilot cannot atone for that. In the end he loses everything – his job, his pilot’s license, and even his freedom. But by his own testimony shared with other inmates, he is finally free, free to admit his problems, free to quit hiding behind the façade.
Jesus wants nothing less from us.