Karl Barth at the Movies: Flight

If you can skip the first five to ten minutes of it, where there is needless nudity, the entirety of the movie is a morality play filled with philosophical questions.

In FlightDenzel Washington plays Capt. Whip Whitaker, an airline pilot we first encounter next to a naked woman who later turns to be his flight attendant, Katerina Márquez (Nadine Velazquez). The captain is clearly still intoxicated, wakes up, drinks some more and does a line or two of cocaine. We don’t really know he is a captain yet. We do know he is divorced and has a strained relationship with his wife and son.

If you have seen the previews, you’d know about the miracle landing of the flight at the beginning of the movie. It’s pretty intense — I don’t think I took a breath until the plane crashed. The maneuvers of the captain allowed all but 6 people to walk away from the flight.

Interspersed in this story is that of Nicole (Kelly Reilly). She is a former photographer who is down on her luck. And a junkie. She retreats to a former fling on the set of a porn movie where he gives her some heroin. Back home, she shoots up only to go into some sort of cardiac arrest, I would guess. The paramedics are taking her out of her apartment as the place Whitaker is flying inverted races over the building. Later in the hospital, they both meet in a stairwell along with a cancer patient representing the best of fatalistic Calvinism — God gave me cancer so why even question it? They talk, each of them, for a bit. He leaves them with the parting words that God brought the two together to save each other.

The film progresses through the TSA investigation. The captain is facing perhaps a lifetime in prison due to being drunk but his attorney gets them to dismiss the toxicology report. We are led to believe that everything is going good until a week before the public hearing when Whitaker, his union rep., and his lawyer are talking in a hanger about vodka bottles found in the crash site. They want him to blame the dead flight attendant — the one he woke up with, the one who died because she saved the life of a child. This is the only sacrifice he has to make. To blame her. He refuses to talk about it and storms out.

In the mean time, he has a discussion with his co-pilot Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty) who is clearly a man of devout piety. Several comments have been made in the movie thus far about Whitaker’s dismissal of anything related to God. However, in this one scene where Evans tells Whitaker that he is likely to never walk again, the co-pilot also unleashed on Whitaker about how he knew the Captain was too drunk to fly. As Whitaker gets up to leave, Evans and his wife tell the Captain that they haven’t said anything to the TSA about his condition. But, they want to pray with the Captain. They also tell him a few other things about how this is the moment God has brought Whitaker too.

The night before the TSA hearing, Whitaker is locked into a hotel room free of alcohol. About 2 that morning, he notices that the door to the other room is open where he also sees a stocked fridge. Well stocked. The next morning, the union rep and the lawyer find Whitaker passed out on the bathroom floor with both rooms destroyed. They bring in the drug dealer who promptly gets Whitaker up to take-off speed with a few hits of coke.

At the hearing, everything is progressing well. It is even announced that the cause of the accident is determined to be mechanical with reports from months before prophesying months before that if the mechanical error occurs inflight, there would be nothing able to save the plane. Before the end of the hearing, however, the TSA officer asks about the vodka bottles. This is Whitaker’s moment to blame the dead girl and walk away. But he doesn’t. Instead, he utters “God help me” and confesses his alcoholism, even saying that he was drunk right then.

As a post-script, he is seen speaking to group of convicts. He was given five years for breaking the public trust. But, here, he has made amends. Here, he has found help for his alcoholism. Here, he says, he is finally free. The final scene is between him and his son. The relationship is less strained, more friendly. The son has to do a college essay on the most fascinating person he’s never met. So, he is there to interview his father. The first question he asks Whitaker is “Who are you?”

There are plenty of reviews disgruntled with the role religion plays in the film. However, I wasn’t. Why so serious?

Karl Barth

Karl Barth (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I immediately thought of Barth and the role his sermons in prison played in his theology. [[William Willimon]]]’s book, Who Will be Saved, sums up much of Karl Barth’s theology here with the analogy of prison. Barth is reminded that all are prisoners, and it is more poignant standing “in a house where there are so many closed doors.” We are all prisoners, Barth says, even the freest among us, even those in the “so-called free world.” In the movie, the Captain receives his freedom only when he is in prison. Only when the doors are closed are they finally open. We are all in one prison or another. Whitaker, a free man who was wealthy, had his share of women, drugs, and fun, was imprisoned in the foulness of greed. He wanted more excitement, more of something. Only when he gave this up, when he was about to be free of any charges and would likely have walked away a hero, did he accept his imprisonment. There, he found freedom.

English: American actress Nadine Velazquez, ci...

English: American actress Nadine Velazquez, circa 2006. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Indeed, the doors to hell are locked from the inside. Whitaker opened the door when he could have remained free, responsible only to himself and walked into a prison of freedom. Throughout the movie, there are plot points where the discussion of God’s sovereignty is discussed, all to the chagrin of Whitaker who laughs it off. Each time, however, he is pointed to the idea that God will eventually catch him. In the end, he and Nicole seemed to be together. His family is joined back to him. And he serves to free others. In prison, but it is a prison of his own choosing.

If you get a chance to watch the movie, skip the needless nudity at the beginning and watch with intensity.

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Post By Joel Watts (10,056 Posts)

Joel L. Watts holds a Masters of Arts from United Theological Seminary with a focus in literary and rhetorical criticism of the New Testament. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

Website: → Unsettled Christianity

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