Was Denzel Washington's Pilot in 'Flight' Inspired by Alcoholics Anonymous?

Denzel Washington in ‘Flight’/Image © Robert Zuckerman/Paramount Pictures
Denzel Washington in ‘Flight’/Image © Robert Zuckerman/Paramount Pictures

“Flight” landed in theaters last week freighted with enough backstory baggage to fill an airplane hangar. There’s the ubiquitous redemption chestnut about Robert Zemeckis’ return to live-action dramatic filmmaking after his detour down the digital rabbit hole yielded a series of strange and stilted films seemingly aimed to please neither adults nor children. And much ado has been made about Denzel Washington’s decision to play against type as an Alpha whose success is driven not by dignity nor decency but by drink and debauchery. We’re now nearing the denouement of this fairy tale, at which point Zemeckis and Washington will have all but locked slots on critics’ ten-best lists and as pace-setters in their respective Oscar races.

Still, there’s one dramatic redemption story in the background of "Flight" that may have gone overlooked. A recent flurry of online chatter has pointed out striking similarities between the hard-drinking pilot in “Flight” and the narrative in one of the firsthand success stories collected at the end of the Alcoholics Anonymous bible, known as The Big Book. In the narrative, a successful commercial airline pilot was discovered flying drunk, lost his license, spent eighteen months in jail, sobered up, and eventually worked his way back into the cockpit.

By no means is anyone suggesting that “Flight” screenwriter John Gatins didn’t give credit where it was due or that his screenplay should compete for the “Best Adapted” Oscar instead of taking its place among the originals. The drunken pilot has become an hoary cliché that evokes images of Leslie Nielsen and bad open mic comedy routines. But there are some fascinating parallels to be drawn between the AA narrator – a Native American who had prevailed over significant cultural and economic obstacles to succeed among the predominantly white top gun professional pilots – and the ace commercial pilot Denzel Washington plays in “Flight,” who is forced to confront his alcoholism after coming under investigation after a near-catastrophic accident raises suspicions that he may have been flying drunk.

The real revelation here has more to do with the depth and breadth of the research that goes into any original screenplay than any specific inspiration Gatins might have drawn from the various source materials he collected over the many years he spent developing this script. For instance, Gatins listened to recovered black box recordings to understand and accurately capture pilot behavior during a crisis situation. And it’s hard to imagine Gatins wouldn’t have been equally thorough in investigating how his protagonist might handle a personal crisis and apply a similar rigor to researching the culture and process of addiction recovery, which constitutes much of the film’s second and third acts.

Whether or not Gatins drew inspiration from The Big Book is somewhat beside the point. (Though, considering the number of recovering addicts in Hollywood, it’s surprising more filmmakers haven’t tapped into that trove of dramatic material.) Because we now live in an age of 360-degree pop culture transparency, in which process has become inseparable from the product, it’s only a matter of time before artists in any medium serve up a list of obscure research source materials to accompany each new release, as a kind of value-added version of DVD extras. For instance, it would have added a whole new dimension to our experience watching the first two seasons of “Mad Men” had we known that creator Matthew Weiner had based the show’s tone and moral framework on Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road.

This full disclosure approach runs a high risk for spoiler exposure and information overload. But the potential upsides – which shine a light on an artist’s obscure passions and inspirations -- are too great to ignore. What do you think about the prospect of cross-referencing an index of sources used to create the latest film or TV show?

  • I'd hate the idea of such an index for two reasons. First, it would the ultimate rabbit hole. I can lose an afternoon on IMDB alone. Second, I think I would be jealous. I mean, I'm supposed to be that resource for my friends and family (not that they're all that happy about it.)

    On the other hand, having such a resource might pressure some writers to up their game a little bit. I remember when CSI came out, and I knew all the plots because I'd seen all the same episodes of Forensic Files. Michael Chrichton at least had the sense to steal his ideas from Scientific American articles.

  • The abuse of substances ( alcohol ect ) does not exclude any one. For the Pilot associations to deny just means they are part of the problem. Enablers or ignorant.

    • (son of) Big Book Bill from Monroe, MI

      Acknowledgement of pilot alcoholism does not lead to a month in a cushy detox ward somewhere.

      In most cases, it leads to immediate dismissal. Every effort is usually made by their friends and co-workers to get the professional to acknowledge the problem on their own and to seek assistance with it. If it can't be done, he / she is allowed to face the consequences of their actions. it's usually pretty fugly.

      Good pay, extended time away from family, f'd up schedules ... give a man (or a woman) enough rope and nothing much better to do with an unpredictable schedule and eventually a seal on a bottle will be cracked open - underwear will hit the floor -- and "f it ... let's party".

      I worked for the railroad. The pay was pretty good, the hours were pretty bad and I was away from home as many as 3 days at a time 2-3 times a week. My wife - the mother of my infant sons - 'put that free time to good use' ... and I knew it.

      If you work every other shift, there are 12 shifts one week and 13 the next. I worked like that for months on end. The money was fat and the opportunity for wholesome entertainment was slim ... but, if you are hungry for human contact there is always some to be had.

      Eventually I became the Group Coordinator for AA of Southeast Michigan.

      There were three groups even I could not attend and was not permitted to list in our directories: the doctors groups, the lawyers groups and the pilots group. (at the time, I only knew of one)

      Professional groups are permitted to be by invitation only ... and I didn't meet the qualifications for an invitation. No harm, no foul. I just needed to know how many there were (I'm pretty sure there were some I wasn't told enough about to make a complete listing for) where, when and how often they met so I could estimate attendance for the tri-county area.

      In Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties of S.E. Michigan, there were over 800 meetings a week. I started one. I also sponsored two men. One lived happily ever after, having met a lovely woman with a ready made family who shared his love of long distance running. The other took a trip out west, got drunk with a bunch of Indians on a reservation and, somewhere in the night, blew his brains out.

      Win some. Lose some. Twenty-seven years later, I'm still sober.

      • Technopundit

        There's no such thing as a "Group Coordinator" in AA. I've been sober in AA for 23 years, and never run across such a title.

        But there sure are a heapin' helpin' if egoists.

        The real-life airline pilot in question, has no right to capitalize on behavior which may have, over time, put thousands of lives in jeopardy. His actions, past and current, are reprehensible.

  • Blank

    The Big Book is not a bible.