In a mock recreation of the conditions in the air that pilot William “Whip” Whitaker, played by Denzel Washington in the film Flight (2012), faced, all of the ten tested crashed the plane and killed all aboard, passengers and crew. Given those same conditions in real time and real space, Whip landed the plane with only four fatalities. Somehow conditions determining a fatal end were not determining at all.  Faced with those determinants, Whip found openings around or through them, turned what seemed to be inevitability into opportunities to choose.

You could say that there was a freedom in the event that he found and within that space were choices and he chose rightly among them. While ten other pilots so tested failed to find that space, failed to find choices in a rapid chain of events caused by a progressive mechanical collapse, succumbed, if you will, to material and objective conditions which overwhelm the freedom to choose, Whip proudly and loudly proclaims the supremacy of his power to choose over any restraint. He’s the pilot who flies through what would deter others, what would bring others to ruin.

We know, however, within the first two scenes that Whip is a man in ruins, or, more precisely, a pilot who has shattered his obligations as a pilot, has lost any sense of the public trust placed in him, who has, in short, long since ruined any social moral sense. What he holds on to as personal morality is his freedom to choose. “I don’t drink because I have to,” he tells us. “I drink because I choose to.” This notion that personal choosing, regardless of what is chosen, is itself an ethics, is sufficient in itself to enable us to claim a certain virtue, is not simply personal, not just Whip’s ruined moral sense, but a prominent feature of Whip’s own American Millennial culture.

Drinking cannot be indicted as alcoholism and cannot come under personal moral review because it’s a consequence of personal choice and that can never be indicted. All the evil that ensues, including the break up of his marriage and losing the love and respect of his son, cannot come under moral review because the dominating ethic of free to choose defines all this as negligible and inconsequential.  Choice, in a way, enables Whip to fly above not only disastrous real world conditions but also above a traditional ethics focused on the consequences of our choices. On this flight plan, if you choose it, if you will it to be then the first and only requirement of moral integrity is fulfilled.

It would be difficult to establish this as counter-factual within the culture Whip finds himself.  The cultural dominance of personal choice as itself a sufficient ethic is obvious if one ignores the rhetoric of all kinds of compassionate and egalitarian exceptionalism and simply focuses on actions taken regarding poverty and plutocracy, environmental degradation, surgical drone slaughter, paranoiac, preemptive and mistaken wars destroying lives and crumbling cultures.

Flight ignores this broader cultural moral frame, as does Whip.  Nevertheless its baggage that is on this flight. In a culture that is increasingly addicted to a personal rendering and reckoning with the world, surrounding conditions are not only unimportant but they are in fact instantly translated to a personal dimension. However forceful and explosive the conditions of flight may be, they can be sucked into a personal realm of personal choice.  Thus, there is no need to indict or move to rehabilitate an entire cultural moral mindlessness. The only imperative here is to redeem Whip in the end by his personal choosing to recognize his alcoholism.

As Whip sits before the post-crash review board, what is in terms of the issues here raised a moral tribunal, and ponders whether he should allow them to think someone else – Trina (Nadine Velazquez), his girlfriend, dead in the crash – drank the vodka whose empty bottles had been found, he places in those anxious moments everyone in the audience into a state of moral review. If morality lies in choice alone, regardless of what is chosen, then clearly he can choose to put the blame on Trina without himself suffering any twinge of conscience. If, however, he cannot allow Trina’s memory to be so defamed by such a false witness, he will choose to ‘fess up.

He does. “Trina didn’t drink. I drank that vodka. I was drunk. I’m drunk now.” In both instances, he has been free to choose; his choice to exonerate Trina and take the blame himself satisfies a traditional moral sense that focuses not on the freedom to choose but on the consequences of the action taken. Something like a Nietzschean moral sense by way of Ayn Rand has thus, in the end, been discarded.

But has it? Doesn’t the film repeat the same sort of camouflaging discourse, a spin away from a deteriorated social moral sense, that has progressively filled the American cultural scene and has spread like a virus throughout the world? Whip chooses to drink; Whip chooses to acknowledge he is an alcoholic; Whip chooses to accept his punishment.  How many in the audience, however, would be equally prepared to accept this: Whip chooses not to find himself guilty and chooses not to allow this moral tribunal to find him guilty because, after all, he knows “No one could have landed that plane like I did.”

The evidence against him therefore is like the plane falling apart: external, objective realities that can be trumped by personal choice. And if the exercising of that choice is the only moral criterion to be met, and the surrounding culture has demonstrated that this is so, then the intensity of that pondering scene before the tribunal could have resulted in a “She may have drunk that vodka” or “I really don’t know.” Those responses would have a very good chance – and this is the disturbing contention – of being received with a compliant understanding, an understanding without moral recrimination.

When it becomes quite obvious that we now live in a post-truth world in which choice is all that matters the only “bad” consequence is being caught, indicted and going to jail. Everything else is entrepreneurial hardball, a winning “will to power,” which cannot be brought on trial when both the determination of truth and moral rightness is no more than an expression of a personal freedom to choose.

The U.S. has just had a presidential election in which the Republican vice- presidential candidate, Paul Ryan, offers copies of Ayn Rand’s works to his staff in order to get them on the “will to power” moral track. This is one instance but it makes the case – a suggestion that Whip could have lied at the end and not found himself guilty would not have led to a moral rebuke but rather a commendable demonstration of the morality of the “Winner.”

However, what is revealed in Flight is that most of us are not ready to make that jump from a traditional social moral sense to a personally chosen morality that cannot be brought before a social tribunal.  We are yet in need of a protective alibi, a masking of our true moral impulses, an apologetics for our failure to recognize clear occasions for moral review, whether they concern the planet and other species or fellow humans. We yet need to find some intermediary that stands between the harsh determinism of conditions outside ourselves as well as what many see as the chaos of a personal choice oblivious to any moral awareness of others.

Flight’s revelation of this occurs early on in the movie. Whip goes into the stairwell for a smoke, runs into a woman, Nicole (Kelly Reilly), also there for a smoke. She is a drug addict who will in the course of the movie recognize that drugs are doing the choosing for her, that she has lost her own power to choose. In her, we find a recognition that one’s will can be overpowered, that under certain conditions we will break down and that no exertion of a personal will to power will resurrect us. She needs to rely on others; she recognizes a social dependence that will empower her personal will.

The need to convince ourselves that we yet hold a social interdependence essential in our lives grows as a culture moves away from what Margaret Thatcher referred to as the abstraction of any notion of “society.” It also exists because some guilt lingers over a moral narcissism that is, at best, embarrassingly unappealing. There is yet little indication that dependency upon others –or the government – in order to fulfill one’s own power of personal choice and personal determination is any part of a neoliberal ideology. There is little indication that this is changing. There is not even a pressing need to reassure ourselves that our personal choice determinations and the needs of society coincide. The expression of a free personal choice has “creatively destroyed” the needs of society.

In that same stairwell scene, Nicole and Whip meet a terminal cancer patient played by James Badge Dale, who bums a cigarette and then treats Nicole and Whip and us to a sharp and energetic disquisition on death, dying, randomness, and God. It’s a long rambling monologue, equalled in length perhaps only by Harley Mays  (John Goodman), who comes in rather like Harvey Keitel’s “Wolf” in Pulp Fiction, as a “cleaner,” as the go-to man to clean up a mess, which now is to sober up Whip with a hit of cocaine.  This cancer patient discourse comes early in the film and yet lingers, riddles all, including Whip’s It’s a Wonderful Life triumph over darkness

The cancer patient and the drug dealer have become experts on addiction. The cancer patient speaks of the conquest by cancer of his will and ultimately his life. Pure contingency, the play of random chance? Or part of God’s plan? He speaks mockingly but without bitterness of the way God and religion are used by family and friends to mask a meaninglessness that cannot be dealt with. Before you get to the bottom of dark despair, God and religion intervene and somehow sense and even hope appear.

God is used here the way Nicole uses the needle that accidentally falls out of her purse: the heroin is a shield against the mind digging deeper into the disturbing mess that either personal choices or “conditions on the ground” have made of us. And so while we are fussing over whether personal choice can triumph over “real conditions on the ground and in the air,” or whether there are forces outside our personal choice which cannot be resisted, we have heard a voice on a stairwell telling us – straight out – that what happens to us and to the world follows no more than a Mad Hatter order, a world, like a plane, that has gone upside down

Somehow we are always in flight in this movie, flying from conditions in the air that disable our personal choice, flying from the accidents of personal choice to some hope that others can save us, flying from the fear that we have no choice but are casualties not of purpose but of accident, flying from a random order of everything to God and religion.

This is all a kind of thought provoking baggage the film will not fully claim or impart to us a usable reclaim ticket. And yet the movie imitates the way we are now: it cannot face all the choices it suggests but instead retreats as we all do to a defended position, one that the movies have always promised to provide. Whether they can continue to do is moot, for our post-truth era does not fear, as the 20th century modernists did, that we are flying without a flight plan but rather fears that everyone chooses his own without any concerns beyond one’s own.  The moral consensus then that movies depend upon to fulfill the promise of a moral uplift would fall apart, like our plane in Flight.

About The Author

Joseph Natoli is the author of numerous books, the more recent of which are This is a Picture, and Not the World: Movies and a Post-9/11 America (Suny Press, 2007), Memory’s Orbit: Film & Culture 1999-2000, (Suny Press, 2003) and Postmodernism: The Key Figures (eds. Hans Bertens & Joseph Natoli, Blackwell, 2002).

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