Flight, Forgiveness, and Ray Lewis

After the Super Bowl, Richard called me to vent some more about Ray Lewis. In the course of our conversation, he posed a difficult theological question about the fervently devoted Raven. Last night, I watched Denzel Washington‘s latest Oscar-nominated film, Flight, which put Richard’s question and Ray Lewis’ faith into (for me) fresh perspective.

In Flight, Washington plays Captain Whip Whitaker, a hard-drinking, drug-using airline pilot. As you can imagine, his life is a mess: he is divorced from his wife and alienated from his teenage son. At the beginning of the film, he boards a plane drunk and high to fly from Orlando to Atlanta. He and his co-pilot navigate bad weather and severe turbulence to reach a smooth cruising altitude. Twenty-seven minutes into the flight, however, the plane malfunctions, sending it into a nose-dive free fall. Even in his inebriated condition, Captain Whitaker performs a series of miraculous maneuvers and, with the help of his crew, performs an emergency landing in a field. Only six people die. FAA officials simulate the events and 10 out of 10 pilots fail to save a single soul on the plane. The rest of the film follows the aftermath of the wreck, Captain Whitaker’s unsuccessful attempts to quit drinking, his budding relationship with an AA member who almost overdosed, and the NTSB’s investigation into the accident.

The film, at 138 minutes long, pardon the pun, flies by thanks to Washington’s engrossing performance and strong supporting cast, particularly Kelly Reilly as Nicole the AA member and eventual romantic interest and John Goodman as a hilarious drug dealer. It’s a credit to Washington’s talent that, as much of a mess as Captain Whitaker is, we’re actually rooting for him to get better and get through the investigation scott-free. The crash sequence is a thing of technical brilliance, and the film somehow manages to maintain that energy through to the final credits, even though nothing remotely as harrowing takes place.

John Goodman as Harling Mays, a hilarious drug dealer who's got what Denzel Washington "needs."

Flight will no doubt appeal to the theologically and/or religiously inclined. Various characters have conflicting opinions on God’s role in the plane crash in particular and, by extension, every-day experiences as well. Some think God had nothing to do with it: Captain Whitaker in a moment of brilliance landed the plane. Others believe that God caused the equipment to malfunction and the plane to crash in order for the crew, passengers, and their friends and family to have, in a sense, a spiritual awakening. These discussions of the omnipotence and will of God are interesting…to a point. Far more important, I think, are the themes of confession, repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation at the heart of the film.

While Captain Whitaker was drunk and high while flying the plane, his inebriation did not cause the crash. In fact, he saved 96 lives. However, if the manufacturers can pin any responsibility on him, they can avoid having to foot the bill by citing his criminal negligence. Captain Whitaker’s (and his union’s) lawyer “kills” his toxicology report and works the case so that he can inevitably get off as a hero. SPOILER: At the moment of truth, however, when Captain Whitaker could place the blame for two empty vodka bottles on one of his dead crew members and continually lie about his alcoholism, he comes clean. His confession of alcoholism (he’s drunk at the hearing as a matter of fact) and, implicitly, irresponsible behavior on the job lands him in jail for 5-6 years. Yet as he tells his AA group in prison, “I’ve never felt this free.” He also tells his imprisoned peers that his punishment is just and right and that he has apologized to and sought reconciliation with the families of the deceased and his own friends and family members who were hurt by his alcoholism.

As I watched the conclusion to Flight unfold, I recalled Richard’s comments about Ray Lewis and asked him to email me a couple of thoughts. Here’s what he’s thinking:

The question that emerges is whether or not someone is forgiven if they do something punishable by a prison sentence if they just confess their sin to God then try to live their lives according to Christian principles? Every time someone tries to bring up Ray Lewis’ past, he changes the subject and says, “This is God’s time.” Or, “That’s the devil trying to distract me.” I actually think God’s concern in a larger sense is not so much “justice” where every wrong is made up for in some way, but “reconciliation.” So in a sense, it may be possible to say, “I’ve confessed to God on this and now I just want to keep playing football,” because there’s no way you’re going to “right the wrong” of being involved in a double murder, even if you serve time. But ultimately, that doesn’t lead to reconciliation, either with the person you wronged, with yourself, or with God. Ray Lewis’s over-religious act strikes me as someone who is living a double life spiritually.

I think Richard’s question is an important one because it points to an eagerness that we all have to get beyond (a) sin. Of course, God forgives us, and for many people that settles it. But it doesn’t have to be…and in fact isn’t…the only ingredient in reconciliation. Personal responsibility, particularly in the form of facing up to the consequences of our actions, must play a part. And I believe that this undergirds many people’s problems with Ray Lewis. He has never lived up…or owned up…to that “half of the bargain.”

Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) faces up to and names his demons.

What we have in Flight is completely different. Captain Whitaker didn’t kill six people. Did he endanger 102 people that day? Of course. But his alcoholism had been ruining numerous lives, primarily his, long before he set foot on that doomed (or divinely ordained) faulty plane. For much of the film, he is in denial of his condition and flees his responsibilities and lashes out against those who want to help him. It is only at the end, when he is “on trial” that he has the courage to speak the truth and embrace the consequences. Will his confession and accepted punishment make everything right? Of course not. Some families accepted his apologies while others didn’t. The process of reconciliation depends on work on the part of the violator and the victim.

Flight is a fine film and Washington owns it. It’s a wild scenario to be sure…flying a commercial jet upside down on the way to an emergency landing. But frequently we all find ourselves in topsy-turvy situations…out of whack, confused, looking for a safe place to rest. Flight seems to suggest that a great way to start is by naming our self- and other-destructive actions and responsibly facing the consequences. As far as Ray Lewis is concerned, perhaps his fervent, publicly-proclaimed faith is no so different from Captain Whitaker’s addiction to drugs and alcohol…it’s just another hit to take the guilty edge off.

Flight (138 mins.) is available on DVD and is rated R for drug and alcohol abuse, language, sexuality/nudity and an intense action sequence.