This isn't the first time Zemeckis has used fuzzy notions of religion to muddy up his storytelling. In his 1996 film Contact, Matthew McConaughey appeared as a hunky theologian, pitching vague spirituality to decidedly secular Jodie Foster and her God-pshawing scientist brethren. Some things just can't be explained, the film assured us. In Flight, the deck is stacked even higher. Whip is a functioning alcoholic and occasional addict, which serves two purposes: 1) to allow Zemeckis to trot out yet one more tale of spiraling addiction and inspiring recovery in the Clean and Sober/28 Days/Smashed mold, and 2) to make his actions in the cockpit that much more, well, miraculous. When he walks onto that jet, he's—spoiler alert—coked to the gills, having given himself a wake-up bump after a night of boozing and sex. To feel a little less pain, he empties three beverage-cart bottles of vodka into his morning orange juice. He's drunk and high when he's at the controls, and if, as he's told, 10 other pilots in simulators couldn't replicate his landing without killing everyone on board, what does that leave us with?
Whip is an alcoholic and an addict, which allows Zemeckis to portray his actions in the cockpit as that much more, well, miraculous.
To be fair, Flight acknowledges that Whip is a talented pilot, and that his act may have just been his talent working through—perhaps even being focused by—the substances in his body. "It was more like instinct," he says. But "instinct" also implies that he turned himself over to something: maybe his reflexes, or maybe even a higher power. And if that's not the case, why is all this religious stuff in the picture?
It comes to a head in possibly the film's silliest single scene, which finds Whip visiting his Bible-thumping co-pilot and the man's wife at his hospital bedside. (When Whip says he's happy to be alive, Mrs. Co-Pilot quickly corrects him: "Blessed to be alive.") "Nothing happens by accident in the kingdom of the Lord," the co-pilot thunders, as the wife actually kisses the cross around her neck behind him, a moment of both painful literalism and amateurish upstaging. She then starts proclaiming "Praise Jesus" during her husband's little sermon, a moment that is played for oddly incongruent laughs, since the movie is barely subtler than she is.
In that 60 Minutes interview, Couric asked Sullenberger if he took time, in the three and a half minutes between the bird strike and the landing on the Hudson, to pray. Sullenberger's answer is diplomatic, but pointed: "I would imagine somebody in back was taking care of that for me while I was flying the airplane... My focus at that point was so intensely on the landing, I thought of nothing else." In other words: yeah, I let the other people do the praying—I was busy doing my job.
"I knew I had to solve this problem," Sullenberger explained. "I knew I had to find a way out of this box I found myself in." In a brief, high-pressure situation, this pilot had to call upon all of his skill, all of his training, and all of his experience to save 155 lives. And afterwards, everybody called it a miracle. It wasn't a miracle—it was what the man was equipped to do. But that's the narrative that's stuck from that incident, and that's why it's disappointing that Flight couldn't find a way to correct it. They went to the trouble of making a loose dramatization of one of the most compelling stories of our era, and they went off and dramatized the wrong damn part of it.