This week the Roundtablers bring the the Morality genre in for a rough landing with Flight, the 2012 film by Robert Zemeckis starring Denzel Washington.
The Editor’s Six Core Questions
Want to learn more about the Editor’s Six Core Questions? Check out our Story Grid 101 episode.
1. What’s the Global Genre? Morality-Redemption – Leslie
To determine a story’s genre, we look at the type of protagonist, their circumstances, and the primary specific change they undergo from beginning to end. We can also look for clues in how we feel about the change.
Whip Whitaker is not a sympathetic character at the outset. Although we might admire his flying skills and cool nerves under pressure, his behavior is reckless and selfish. He is sophisticated enough to recognize that abusing alcohol and drugs, especially before a flight, is wrong because he lies to cover it up. But he lacks the will to stop his addictive pattern or accept help from those who offer it.
Several people who care about Whip try to get him to admit his problem (his ex-wife, his son, his union rep, Nicole), but he disappoints them all. Even the threat of criminal charges and a potential life sentence is not enough to make him stop drinking. He performs a few unrelated selfless acts during the middle build when he helps Nicole out of the bad situation with her apartment manager, but he tempts her to drink while she is trying to get sober.
The crash and NTSB investigation force his hand—eventually. Instead of coming clean about being under the influence during the flight, he allows his attorney to challenge the toxicology report. He lies until the end of the NTSB hearing when he has to choose between the truth and letting his deceased lover (flight attendant Katerina Márquez) take responsibility for drinking on the plane. He chooses to admit his pattern of addiction.
As a result, we see him in the second year of his five- to six-year sentence. He is speaking to inmates in a recovery meeting for addicts, and we get the sense he is using his story for the benefit of others. He is also willing to allow his son to interview him for his college essay, another way of sharing his story.
The audience feels outrage and impatience at his inability to reform (for example, when Whip takes the alcohol from the minibar in the adjoining hotel room and then lies under oath), but we feel righteous satisfaction when he finally admits the truth because he’d “reached his lifelong limit of lies.” (I’m also left wondering, like I did at the end of The Hurt Locker, what level of skill could a pilot like Whip bring to his work if he weren’t so reckless?)
Compare to other internal genres: Whip is tested by his addiction, but the Testing genre requires a protagonist with a strong will who either maintains (Triumph, e.g., Selma) or ignores (Surrender, e.g., The Hurt Locker) their moral compass in the end. The ending reminded me of the Status-Tragic story (e.g., A Place in the Sun), but the protagonist in a Tragic story is sympathetic in the beginning.
Kim: It’s such an interesting example of Redemption. Some parts feel very much like Testing-Triumph and also like Punitive (like justice must be served). When Leslie and I did our masterwork studies for the Internal Genre posts, there were noted similarities in the shape of Testing-Triumph and Redemption stories we examined: Cool Hand Luke and Kramer vs Kramer.
Both subgenres started negative (although Testing-Triumph was simply at Self-Interest and Redemption begins at the negation of the negation) and then shift up and down until the end when, ultimately, the value rises to some form of sacrifice. It’s been tricky to pin down an external genre, but as is often the case when an internal genre is the global genre, there seems to be a mix of externals going on to support the global internal change, Action / Crime / Society. We experience shifts of Justice and Injustice, Life and Death, and for Captain Whip, Impotence Masked as Power / Unwellness Masked as Wellness to Personal Power / Wellness. Addiction it seems is a Society story with oneself, and only the individual is capable of the revolution.
2. What are the Conventions and Obligatory Scenes of the Morality story?
Conventions – Jarie
Despicable protagonist begins at his worst – Whip is a drunk and drug addict that pilots a plane hungover, on cocaine, and even lets his co-pilot take over while he mixes himself a drink and catches a nap. All with 102 souls on board.
Spiritual mentor/sidekick – Harling Mays, his friend and drug dealer and Nicole, the drug addict, the cancer patient in the stairwell. All his words of wisdom and then he calls Nicole out on being an addict. Charlie, his friend from the Navy, is trying really hard to help him but he is at his wits end. Harling saves the day when Whip needs to get sober quick.
Seemingly impossible external conflict – All the pressure on Whip as a hero yet the NTSB is investigating him because they found drugs in his system. Whip is facing jail time if they prove that it was the drugs that made the plane crash.
Ghosts from protagonist’s past torment him – Going back to the farm where he grew up and the poor decisions he made in his marriage and with his son. Booze and drugs torture him as well. He just can’t shake his addition and it will be the downfall of him. Whip “choosing to drink” speech is exactly why he lost his son, wife, career, and his life. That ghost also makes him loose Nicole.
Aid from unexpected sources – Nicole and the cancer patient in the stairwell. Mr. Lang, the lawyer from Chicago. Especially Nicole the drug addict. Seeing the co-pilot on TV at the bar, that turns him away from drinking to go visit him.
Jarie: This is like the bad boy Sully. Whip is deeply flawed yet he is trying to make amends with his past. The scene at the farm when he throws out all the booze and drugs. It’s a lot of booze but it’s a symbol of Whip wanting to get better yet he will fall. The pressure is just too great. He can’t get his shit together even when things are going his way. It’s such a classic addict story. He is imploding and needs Charile to save him.
The adjacent room and the mini-bar is a great tempeation that he cannot get away from. He ends up drinking the whole mini-bar and they find him passed out. Haring saves the day. His spiritual drug guide. It’s a bit of a stretch that it’s open, so it’s not so innovative.
The climax at the interview with the NTSB. This is where Whip has a moral dilemma about Trina and blaming her for his failures. It’s a powerful scene and will torture his soul if he lies. He then tells the truth and his soul is finally free. When he admits it, he finally faces the demons. He then admits he is an addict. “God help me” that was line before he jumps into the void. This is the all is lost moment.
The confession in the support group just brings it all back around. It’s atonement for the sins of the past. He is now free even though he is in prison. The scene with his son and the “Who are you?” is a great way to end the movie. Powerful statement. Do we really know who we are?
Obligatory Scenes – Valerie
A shock upsets the hibernating authentic self – After Southjet 227 crashes, Whip learns that six people, including Katerina, died. The shock of that news is a wake up call for Whip. When Harling brings supplies (clothes, cigarettes and vodka) to the hospital, Whip tells him the he’s not going to drink anymore. (at approx 37 min mark)
Protagonist expresses inner darkness with an overt refusal of the Hero’s Journey call to change – At 55 minutes in, during the luncheon scene, Whip realizes that authorities know he was both drunk and high on cocaine when he was flying. He knows that he faces prison time, a minimum of 12 years for drunk driving, or life imprisonment for manslaughter. While there may also have been a mechanical malfunction, even with a toxicology report, Whip refuses to admit that he has a problem which may have contributed to the deaths of six people. In the very next scene he’s in a bar. So, Charlie and the lawyer are presenting the overt call to change. And Whip’s inner darkness (his alcoholism) is expressed with the order of a double Stoli, neat.
Protagonist faces an All is Lost Moment and either discovers their inner moral code or chooses the immoral path – I think Whip’s All Is Lost Moment comes 2 hours, 4 minutes into the film when, during the hearing scene, Ellen Block asks him whether he thinks Katerina was the one who drank the vodka. If he lies, and says it was Katerina, he will go free. But, he will also blacken the name of his colleague; a woman he knew intimately and who gave her life to save a child. If he tells the truth, then he’ll lose everything he has been working so hard to keep (his job, his freedom, his drinking and cocaine abuse, his false sense of pride). Up to this point, lying was a habit. He’s a skilled liar and does it with ease. He lied about everything to everyone, and even encouraged two of his colleagues to lie on his behalf. For some reason though, he can’t do it this time. As he says “it was as if I’d reach my lifelong limit of lies”. So, by finally telling the truth, Whip discovers his inner moral code and redeems himself.
Protagonist actively sacrifices self in service of an individual, a group, or humanity (positive) or consciously chooses to remain selfish (negative) – This obligatory scene is the same as the All is Lost Moment. Whip actively sacrifices himself to save the memory of Katerina.
Protagonist faces literal or metaphorical death and either loses the battle but gains self-respect, meaning and peace; or wins the battle but loses self-respect, meaning and peace – Interestingly, Whip faces literal death several times in the film (every time he gets drunk and uses cocaine, driving his car while drunk and of course in the plane crash). However, it’s the metaphorical death that has the most impact on him and causes him to change his ways. By telling the truth in the hearing and finally admitting that he’s an alcoholic, Whip says goodbye to his old life of lies and loses his wings, his false sense of pride, his freedom. I’m not sure that he respects himself, but he does see himself for who he was. He’s on the path to finding meaning in his life when, in the final scene, his son comes to visit him. Sobriety certainly brings him a sense of peace.
Jarie: Protagonist actively sacrifices self in service of an individual – During the NTSB hearing where he can tell one more lie but he just can’t tell another lie. He chooses the truth so that he can save Trina’s reputation. It’s the first selfless thing he has done the whole movie. Extremely powerful scene and it’s done with a lot of great drama.
3. What is the POV? What is the Narrative device? – Leslie
We see most of the story from Whip’s point of view, though we are shown some scenes where he is not present. These scenes provide dramatic irony in certain moments (like when the airline owner shares what he thinks of Whip before the pilot joins the meeting).
Narrative Device: When we get to the scene near the end, when Whip is in the prison addiction recovery meeting, I had the thought that the narrative device might be Whip’s telling the story in that meeting. The scenes where Whip isn’t present undermine this possibility, except that he could have become familiar with the facts revealed in those scenes through talking with Nicole and reviewing the NTSB records for trial. It doesn’t seem to be the intent of this film (the scene with his son also undermines this possibility), but this could make for an interesting framing story in a novel.
Anne: The early scenes in Nicole’s point of view establish her as a major character, and yet she’s absent from the ending payoff, except in photographs. The longer I thought about this choice, the less sense it made to me why the filmmakers chose to highlight her life and difficulties so strongly and then drop her. This is where those last columns in the Story Grid spreadsheet would have helped–the columns where you identify the POV character in each scene, and name all present and mentioned characters. It would have really stood out that Nicole basically vanishes.
4. What are the Objects of Desire, AKA wants and needs? – Leslie
Wants: Whip wants freedom and autonomy.
Needs: Whip needs to abandon his selfish lies and admit he is addicted to alcohol and drugs.
5. What is the Controlling Idea / Theme? – Leslie
The typical controlling idea for a Redemption Story is “Good triumphs when the Protagonist sacrifices worldly, selfish values in favor of the needs of others.”
The cause and effect statement derived from Friedman’s “Forms of the Plot” is When an unsympathetic protagonist, with a sophisticated mind but weak will, experiences a seemingly impossible challenge through which they recover their inner moral compass, they make a selfless choice for others and are rewarded.
But to take into account the reason for his change, I suggest the following:
Protagonists see justice done when they abandon the selfish lies that hold in place habits that endanger the lives of others then serve others by sharing their stories.
Kim: There was pre-recording discussion on what the ultimate takeaway of this story is, because it certainly isn’t a feel good redemption story like we’re used to. I think there’s something about “It’s never too late to do the right thing” coming through.
6. What’s the Beginning Hook, the Middle Build, and the Ending Payoff? – Kim
Beginning Hook – After Captain Whip successfully maneuvers through a turbulent takeoff, a mechanical malfunction causes the plane to go into a nosedive, and Captain Whip must try an unconventional maneuver to level out the descent or everyone onboard will die. Captain Whip inverts the plane and is able to glide to a field for an emergency crash landing.
- Inciting incident: After making it through a turbulent takeoff, Captain Whip comes out to comfort the passengers and secretly pours three vodka bottles into his orange juice.
- Turning Point Progressive Complication: Mechanical malfunction causes plane to go into a nosedive.
- Crisis Question: Best Bad Choice – Try an unconventional maneuver to level out the plane or continue trying to gain control through conventional methods.
- Climax: Captain Whip inverts the plane, leveling out their rapid descent.
- Resolution: He is able to glide the plane to a field for an emergency crash landing, where he is pulled from the wreckage and taken to safety.
Middle Build – When Captain Whip learns of the six deaths as a result of the crash and the impending criminal investigation, he and his legal team must cover up his intoxication or risk having the mechanical malfunction blamed on Captain Whip (leading to jail for him and trouble for the union and airline). They kill the toxicology report and hide his ongoing sobriety issues.
- Inciting incident: Whip learns about the death toll and tells Harling he quit drinking.
- Turning Point Progressive Complication: Going to be a criminal investigation.
- Midpoint Shift: Tells the truth to his attorney (I was drunk during the flight) but then says he doesn’t need help, he can stop drinking on his own.
- Crisis Question: Irreconcilable Goods: admit the truth about his alcoholism and get help or protect himself from the criminal investigation.
- Climax: Refuses help and chooses to protect himself from the criminal investigation by lying and asking others to lie with him and for him.
- Resolution: Nicole leaves and his family won’t see him. The only person he can go to for help is his union rep.
Ending Payoff – After using cocaine to sober up from his bender, Captain Whip attends his hearing where they ask him to attribute the empty vodka bottles to the flight attendant Trina–he can lie and save himself or tell the truth and protect Trina’s reputation. He tells the truth and admits to being an alcoholic, finally setting himself free.
- Inciting incident: In hotel, Captain Whip finds alcohol in the room next door, leading to a bender.
- Turning Point Progressive Complication: During the hearing, the lead investigator questions him on the empty vodka bottles, asking him if he believes Trina to be the one who drank them.
- Crisis Question: Irreconcilable Goods: Lie and save himself or tell the truth and protect Trina’s reputation, and ultimately finally take responsibility for his actions.
- Climax: Tells the truth — that he was drunk then and he’s drunk now — because he is an alcoholic.
- Resolution: Receives 5 years jail time for betraying the public’s trust, leads an AA meeting in jail where he shares his story, celebrates one year sobriety, and his son comes to visit him.
7. Other Story-Related Observations
Anne: The adjacent room was one of the weakest linchpins I’ve ever seen in a serious movie. It asks us to believe that Whip’s handlers could get a room, post a guard, clear the minibar of all alcohol…and NOT NOTICE that the connecting door is unlocked? That stretched my suspension of disbelief past the breaking point and nearly ruined the movie for me.
Leslie: Diabolus ex Machina: TV Tropes specifically calls out this particular scene as an instance of it, saying, “In order to make sure that Denzel Washington’s character is forced to pay for his crime (even if he might have managed to detox all on his own), the door to the adjacent hotel room just happens to be unlocked (actually, open), and the balcony open so that the wind can make the door ‘knock’ until Denzel notices and decides to check it out and thus find a pile of liquor.”
Anne: The scene in the stairwell was so brilliant that it almost didn’t belong in this movie. It brings the protagonist together with a Herald and Mentor in a space that’s outside of normal space and time–in the hospital stairwell–and feels like a meeting in the afterlife. It’s filled with the symbolism and spirituality that the rest of the movie aims at but doesn’t quite hit. The cancer patient has come up from the basement, the voice of death or the underworld, to speak to two other people who have lately faced death. His words of wisdom, masked by a flippant attitude, are true to his own near-death situation and don’t feel at all preachy or out of place. The scene resonated deeply for me, and felt like it belonged in a much less flawed movie than the one it’s in.
Jarie: Great soundtrack. Really sets the mood.
Powerful scene with Margaret at the church when Whip asks her to lie for him. So selfish. It just goes to show how deep his selfishness is and how he just wants to make this go away. He is also in denial of his addiction.
Great scene with the co-pilot. It’s like a spiritual revival. When he prays with them, you know that he is just doing it so that the co-pilot does not say anything. He is using him like he uses everyone else.
Best flashback scene as he leaves the hotel room to the same music as before he got on the flight. Just a great shot and a wonderful way to show that “I got this.” Great setup and payoff.
Kim: Another interesting meal scene is where Whip meets with his union rep and his attorney to discuss his toxicology report and pending criminal investigation.
This wraps it up for season two of the Story Grid Editor Roundtable Podcast. Join us after a short break when we launch season three with a brand new format.