Great men and heroes are human beings just like you and I. They too have sides to their personality that do not live up their overall image. If this side does not surface too much, it does not take away from the greatness or heroism in question. But how much is too much?
This is the question that the film "Filght", directed by Robert Zemeckis, starring Denzel Washington(one of my favourites), poses and tries to give an answer. Washington plays Whip Whitaker, an airline pilot with whose shambles of a private life we get acquainted right in the opening scenes. He is an alcoholic, a drug-addict and a divorced father of a teen-aged son, largely estranged from his wife and child. During what seems to be a routine flight from Orlando to Atlanta an accident happens and most of the people on board are saved only through Whitaker's remarkable maneuver and the resulting crash-land. But behind the scenes of public accolades for undoubted heroism troubling aspects of Whitaker begin to emerge...
Zemeckis then gives the conflict from several points of view. The main one is Whitaker's. The aftermath of the incident sees the pilot attempting to live with himself. Unable to wrestle with the more unsavoury aspects of his personality Whitaker develops a self-destructive streak which he tries to cover up with arrogant posture towards people who he can not lie to. As rationalization and self-justification, he begins to see his act not as a defining feature of himself but merely a tool to balance or even obfuscate his alcohol and drug abuse. Moments of clarity and lucidity, however, reveal an individual desperate to find redemption.
Another angle is the more technical one, but it is closely connected to first one, and involves the reaction of officialdom, namely the air traffic authorities and airline executives which is at first brought through the characters of Charlie Anderson(Bruce Greenwood), pilot union liason to Whitaker and Hugh Lang(Don Cheadle), the attorney for the union. While willing to help Whitaker avoid any legal problems as well as overcome his personal conditions it is not clear throughout the film whether their actions driven by motives that are noble and altruistic or merely in service of the airline company's wish to avoid any liability, the wish that becomes clear in the most brazen and callous ways during a meeting with the airline's owner(Brian Geraghty).
In the climactic moment Whitaker is forced to ask the question of "how much awful behavior is too much" himself. And the answer brings him the moral and spiritual redemption he desired, ironically, just as he was about to achieve the ultimately false deliverance his helpers, whatever their motives were, intended to provide him. What is also a paradox is that through this his act of saving lives is also cleansed from any possible minimization or misrepresentation and presented in all it's purity(although this is not presented in the film itself).
On a final note about the film's message, one can not escape, once the film is seen, the somewhat ambiguous title. "Flight" can really refer to the main incident that triggers the plot, but it can also have the meaning of "running away from something" because, indeed, most of the characters, main or supporting, are indeed throughout the film trying to run away from something, whether it is the personal problems that dog them or responsibility for their actions. In the end it all catches up with them, showing that to make problems disappear it is necessary to take them head on.