Fight or Flight
by Mark Hahn
Completely exposed and walking through the bleak Arizona desert, you look up and try to put your heart into every big jet taking off from Tucson International Airport. Sometimes your heart just needs to get the fuck away from all the weight of your pain that is pulling it down. The planes fly off into what seems a slow motion heaven and you can feel your heart almost making it on board. Then the giant clear blue sky crashes down around you and you are left standing alone in the desert. F-16 fighters circle in training formation — flying out of nearby Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. It’s as if to let you know that they are ready to shoot down any dream trying to escape.
* * *
Last night I took my eleven year old boy to see Flight, where Denzel Washington plays Whip Whitaker, a cocky airline pilot who is addicted to multiple substances and flies under the influence all the time — this is his life. My son dreams of being a pilot so I knew he would like the crash drama, and regarding the sex and drug abuse — as far as I’m concerned — it’s never too young to start talking to your kids about that.
Denzel Washington brings the complex and nuanced reality of an addict brilliantly to the screen — I can’t remember anyone doing it better. When Whip gets the combination of drugs and alcohol just right, you can almost feel that magic moment that every addict lives for. You can see it in Washington — when Whip is feeling ten feet tall — how happy, confident and alive he is. The world feels right. Though, before long, you can’t avoid also feeling the profound loneliness and pain that his addictions have brought to his life. This movie does not glamorize substance abuse nor does it demonize it.
What’s interesting about the (mild) sex scenes is how carefully they’re shot to show how a physical tenderness can be shared between troubled people. This is much harder to pull off successfully in a movie than gratuitous sex, and in Flight, it is done with sincerity. Even with Whip’s too young stewardess girlfriend (played by the very sexy Nadine Velazquez — who my boy absolutely loved seeing naked), there is a level of closeness between the two that feels genuine — two fucked up people spending time together so they don’t have to be alone with their addiction and struggles.
The first time I watched the movie, the moralizing Hollywoodization of this addiction narrative was annoying to me, but the second time seeing it, I saw it through the eyes of my eleven year old. I decided that I liked it — for him. Realities are personal and not universal, but how can you convey that to a kid? Washington does a fantastic job of showing the complexity of addiction — the immediacy of feeling great when the drugs kick in and the corresponding larger picture of loneliness and despair. For this, I forgive the ending. It is a Hollywood movie after all, and people want a happy ending. Good guys always win and underneath it all, Whip is a good guy. He saved a hundred lives through his sheer genius and piloting skill, and in the end he does the right thing and comes clean and proves his devotion to his dead girlfriend.
* * *
After the crash, Whip meets Nicole (played by Kelly Reilly) in the hospital. She had a slip up and is recovering from a heroin overdose. She’s the hard luck girl with the difficult past who is struggling to get sober and stay sober. She has a sponsor, goes to AA and tries to get Whip to go with her. It’s hard not to fall for Nicole, and in fact, during the movie, my son leaned over to me and whispered, “You could probably fall in love with her, couldn’t you daddy?”
I was floored. I asked him why. He said it was because she was a photographer, but I could see in his eyes that there was something more. He likes messing with me. I just smiled at him. I could relate to Nicole as my friend — and who knows — putting some fictional self in some celluloid parallel universe, maybe I could fall in love with her.
In real life, I found the love of my life two years ago. We both shoot photos together and we’re both sober.
* * *
When the movie was over, my son told me, “Don’t worry daddy, when I’m a pilot, I’m not going to do the drugs or drinking.”
That’s what I wanted to hear.
Then, with a shy grin, he said, “I’m just going to do the women!”
I laughed, “Find someone that you really like and who really likes you back — there’s nothing better.”
* * *
It’s hard for me to talk with my kids about sobriety. They have never seen me take a drink and only know about some of the wild stories from my youth. I can’t explain to them how my life was essentially on hold while I was out drinking. They don’t know what it was like for me trying to block out the unresolved emotions that were left in me when my dad died. Somethings you can only share with someone who already knows.
No one told me to stop drinking. I decided to do it on my own. I tell my kids that my choice to be sober should tell them more than anything I can say. I don’t know what they really think.
When Whip defiantly boasted to Nicole, “I choose to drink,” I could hear myself saying the same thing years ago. Today I choose to be sober and I embrace life and my emotions on their own terms — good or bad. There is nothing physically stopping me from going out and getting drunk any night of the week, but I choose not to. It’s a good choice. I’ve been sober for more than twenty five years.