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?