where the plane equipment badly malfunctions, sending the plane into an inevitable dive. (And as is typical with such things, the point of failure is tiny and almost insignificant -- a stripped thread resulting from substandard lubricant and not enough maintenance checks. The Space Shuttle engineers could empathize here, based on their experience with stretched O rings or foam insulation fired at fatal speed.) In a scenario loosely based on the crash of Alaskan Airlines 261, Whip rolls the plane into inverted position [to flip a stuck "down" nose into an upright position] and back around right before an emergency field landing. Instead of losing all 102 people aboard the flight, only six people die. Experienced pilots placed in flight sims in similar conditions are unable to recreate Whip's amazing feat; from those not acquainted with the crash, Whip is considered a hero.
Unfortunately, his prowess aside, as we know from the very begining of the movie, Whip was without adequate sleep, far more than legally drunk by the laws of any US state, and high on coke at the time of the crash. His copilot knew it; his staff knew it. As is made clear early in the movie, the crash is not Whip's fault, and his bringing the plane down with so few casualities only underscores his buku piloting skills; but it doesn't change the fact that he was behaving irresponsibly and illegally, and now that there was a major incident, his addictive behaviors are in danger of being exposed and actually destroying his life and his career.
The movie itself was well-done, but I can't say it was pleasurable to watch in general, and especially not because of my past life experience. I found myself internally struggling, watching Whip posture and lie and weasel his way out of things, purging his house of booze and then immediately binging the next night even under the onus of a huge NTSB investigation. If there is just one thing that highlights addictions as "negative" behaviors, it's that when going even just temporarily clean would likely enable one to avoid discovery, addicts are unable to do so; they seem compelled, perhaps even damned, to destroy themselves.
Watching him drink out of large plastic bottles of cheap vodka in the liquor store parking lot, loading up orange juice for innocuous ways to carry drink while driving, finishing off case after case of beer, having a booze locker large enough to supply a fraternity with hard liquor for a weekend of partying, mumbling incoherently while turning up the TV loud enough to hurt one's ears before passing out on the floor... and then that Coke can -- the one he carried, where you couldn't tell whether it was just yet another "mule" for 12 ounces of straight liquor or else a sugar fix meant to alleviate the "sweet tooth" that often plagues recovering alcholics... a lot of this movie really captures the physical behavior of what a male white-collar alcoholic looks like. I know it does; I've lived around; it was unsettling and even painful to experience it all again.
And then, there was of course all the lying. I won't spoil the movie by describing specific scenes, but Whip spends much of the movie in denial, or misdirecting people, or finding excuses for his behavior at the times he's been caught, or making promises he ultimately won't keep (and even the junkies know that) -- basically ruining his own reputation. It's obvious that people love him and respect his abilties, but at the same time they are acutely aware of what he is, and the movie never makes excuses for him. Things simply proceed straightaway. And Denzel Washington himself plays the role straight (and even understated), as if very well might appear if this was your life and Whip was a guy you knew at your workplace. He's a good pilot, the accident wasn't his fault, and therefore in his line of thought he did nothing wrong and his life is fine. Even having all of his relationships eroded and eventally destroyed is not enough to bring him back from the edge; he merely digs in deeper.
It finally comes down to one moment, where Whip decides the rest of his life, wrestling not just for his humanity but for his very soul, and I appreciate the way the movie is not clear about how things will resolve until that moment arrives.
There's a cameo by one of the Dead Poet Society boys, which I'm proud for myself in catching as soon as I saw him. There's also a young ultra-religious couple that you might be tempted to view as caricature; but the odd thing is that I have known such people IRL and even went to church with them.