Flight: Denzel Saves Jesus from a Fate Worse Than Death
And this is gonna sound really stupid coming from a man who’s in prison… but for the first time in my life… I’m free.
Denzel Washington in the movie, Flight
I found Jesus in an alcoholic airline pilot. I know. It’s not your normal place for a Jesus sighting. Mostly we see Jesus as a superhero, the way Mel Gibson portrayed him in the The Passion of the Christ. Someone had to save Jesus from that simplistic caricature, and to my surprise the movie Flight comes to Jesus’ rescue. Cleverly, it takes the superhero schtick head on and relegates it to a minor subplot. Denzel Washington plays the lead character in Flight, a debauched airline pilot named Whip who manages, despite being drunk and high on cocaine, to heroically land a plane that is falling from the sky like a lead balloon. He saves the lives of over 100 people and during the movie we hear repeatedly that no other pilot but Whip could have landed that plane successfully. Yet the main storyline is not his heroic superman feat but this: Will Whip ever admit he needs help?
Before you read further, I must issue a spoiler alert, because to understand how Denzel saves Jesus from the fate of superhero-dom, I have to talk about the movie’s ending. Up until the end, Whip refuses to admit he has a problem. This guy is a seriously flawed human being who despite his alcoholism and cocaine addiction has managed to escape detection and have a successful career as an airline pilot. His marriage ended in divorce and he’s estranged from his teenage son, but hey, professionally he’s a highly functioning alcoholic and that seems to be the choice he’s made for himself. What allows us to identify with this guy, even though very few of us are in as dangerous and reckless a situation as Whip, is that we all share his ability to live in denial about our faults and foibles. When relationships end, isn’t it easier to blame our partner than to take responsibility for our contribution to the break-up? Even more than avoiding whatever punishment or cost might be associated with failure, we avoid the place of shame like the plague. Me, a failure? Me, needing help – from you? No way, no how. Whip is the “no way, no how” in all of us, the “I can do it myself” rather than admit our own neediness and accept offers of help. Being vulnerable in our world is to be shamed and Mel Gibson’s Jesus ain’t no shameful pansy, by God, and neither are we.
Whip has a better reason than most for sticking to his belief in his own invulnerability: Any admission of alcoholism will land him in jail on criminal charges of flying under the influence. So he has every incentive to play the hero, the one who others turn to for help, not the one who needs saving. And Whip’s plan is working. At the hearing before the NTSB, he has passed every hurdle except one. Though he suspended beverage service on the flight because of turbulence, two empty vodka bottles were found in the plane’s trash. His own toxicology report has been squashed by his attorney and so all he has to do is lie about knowing anything about those empties to secure his freedom from prison. But four passengers and two crew members died in the crash. One of the deceased crew members was his lover Trina and she had been drinking with him the night before the flight. She died because she left her seat to refasten a child whose seat belt had come undone as the plane was diving. Her toxicology report shows an illegal alcohol level and the NTSB investigator asks Whip in front of everyone in the room, for the cameras, for the record, if he thinks that this woman drank the vodka. She’s dead, so prison time is not an issue. The only thing at issue is her memory. To secure his freedom all Whip has to do is let her take the blame and the shame. The path to freedom is almost effortless, but he hesitates, asks for the question to be repeated, mumbles an inaudible “God help me” and then admits the truth. “I know for a fact that she did not drink that vodka,” Whip says clearly into the microphone, “because I did. I drank the vodka.”
So off he goes to prison, the place of shame. How will he react? Will he continue to blame others for his problems, succumb to anger, resentment, or begin plotting to get his old life back? Quite the opposite. We next see Whip speaking to a group of fellow prisoners at an AA meeting. Here’s what he says with the script writers notes included:
I’ve had time to think about all of it. Doing a lot of writing. I’ve written letters to each of the families that lost loved ones on my flight. Some were able to hear my apology, some never will. I’ve also apologized to all the people who tried to help me along the way, but I couldn’t or wouldn’t listen, like my wife, I mean my ex-wife…(he gets emotional) …and my son. Again, some were able to forgive me… some never will. (collects himself) But at least I’m sober, and I’m grateful for that. And this is gonna sound really stupid coming from a man who’s in prison… but for the first time in my life… I’m free
Though many had asked Whip for his own good to get help for his addiction, he never did. But he did finally admit to his addiction for the sake of Trina. To protect her from being shamed he accepted the shame and the consequences for himself. And he occupies that place of shame without rancor or resentment, without self-justifications or plots for revenge. He occupies it peacefully and invites others to join him there for, as he says, for the first time in his life, he’s free.
Maybe it took superhuman strength for Whip to admit his guilt, but I think, once he asked for God’s help and opened his mouth to tell the truth, he realized the tremendous amount of effort it took to hide from the truth. The truth is what sets him free from having to work so very hard. I think that’s what Jesus wanted us to understand by dying a most shameful death – dying is not the worst thing that can happen to you. Living a lie is a fate worse than death.