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Denzel Washington as Whip Whitaker in "Flight." | Source: YouTube/Paramount Pictures
Denzel Washington as Whip Whitaker in "Flight." | Source: YouTube/Paramount Pictures

Is 'Flight' Based on a True Story? Exploring The Real-Life Event That Inspired the Movie

Jana Stevens
Oct 07, 2023
02:55 A.M.

While some of the plot points of "Flight" are loosely based on a true story, the Denzel Washington-led blockbuster used the disaster as a framing device to convey the fictional struggle of a high-functioning drug and alcohol abuser.

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"Flight" introduces Whip Whitaker, portrayed by Denzel Washington, as a veteran commercial pilot who arrives at work with a hangover from a night of partying in his hotel room on illicit substances.

He expertly navigates through poor weather conditions and a mechanical malfunction to make an emergency landing. Although he is hailed a hero, a blood test proves he was flying drunk, and he is subjected to a hearing that could send him to prison for life.

Denzel Washington attends the UK premiere of 'Flight' at the the Empire Leicester Square on January 17, 2013, in London, England. | Source: Getty Images

Denzel Washington attends the UK premiere of 'Flight' at the the Empire Leicester Square on January 17, 2013, in London, England. | Source: Getty Images

The True Story of Alaska Airlines Flight 261 That Informed the 2012 Movie 'Flight'

The short answer to whether the "Flight" is based on a true story is yes, to a limited extent to the tragedy of Flight 261. On January 31, 2000, Alaska Airlines Flight 261 crashed into the Pacific Ocean on the coast of southern California.

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The plane had taken off from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, heading to San Francisco and Seattle. Despite the pilots' heroics, including briefly inverting the McDonnell Douglas MD-80 aircraft, all 88 passengers died.

According to a news report, among those on board were at least 35 passengers connected to the airline and its sister company, and 50 people were returning from vacation to Seattle.

The cargo door section is shown at a warehouse at NBVC (Naval Base Ventura County) Port Hueneme which contains about 85% of the wreckage of the Alaska Airlines plane that crashed off Ventura County coast. | Source: Getty Images

The cargo door section is shown at a warehouse at NBVC (Naval Base Ventura County) Port Hueneme which contains about 85% of the wreckage of the Alaska Airlines plane that crashed off Ventura County coast. | Source: Getty Images

Former Alaska Airlines mechanic John Liotine became a whistle-blower when he informed the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that his supervisors approved maintenance records for work not done for the MD-83.

An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board uncovered that the jackscrew of the plane, the component that is vital in controlling the angle of the aircraft, was not adequately lubricated.

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The catastrophic failure of the part sent Flight 261 into a dive. The FAA was also guilty of allowing Alaska Airlines' risky maintenance practices. It was reported that a pod of dolphins circled the debris of the cash.

Alaska Airlines memorial at beach in Port Hueneme on Tuesday, August 12, 2003. | Source: Getty Images

Alaska Airlines memorial at beach in Port Hueneme on Tuesday, August 12, 2003. | Source: Getty Images

Dolphins have become a symbol for the relatives and friends of the former passengers of Flight 261. On the beach overlooking the crash site, between Port Hueneme and Anacapa Island, there is a monument with brass dolphins and a sundial.

He noted that, in a sense, it was an extension of "Back to the Future."

Other memorials include benches at Enumclaw sports field and Eastlake, a wall of tiles at Western Washington University, and a park named for 6-year-old Rachel Pearson, who died with her family. The pilots were awarded ALPA's Gold Medal for Heroism.

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How 'Flight' from 2021 Differs from the True Story It Was Based on, and a Deeper Theme

It should be stated that the biggest liberty taken by the filmmakers of "Flight" is the storyline of Denzel Washington's part, which was entirely fictionalized. The Alaska Airlines Flight 261 pilots were never suspected of being intoxicated during the doomed journey.

Screenwriter John Gatins created the role following a conversation with an off-during pilot on a flight. The scribe realized the specific personal struggles that people in that profession faced.

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The airline's name in the movie is changed to a fictional company, South Jet Air, and Flight 227 takes off in Orlando en route to Atlanta and has an emergency landing in a field near a small church.

Another significant departure from the circumstances of Alaska Airlines Flight 261 and "Flight" is the casualties. As mentioned, 88 passengers and crew perished after their plane plunged into the ocean. Only six die in the film.

On what drew him to the project, director Robert Zemeckis cited the quality of the script and the challenge of making it. He noted that, in a sense, it was an extension of "Back to the Future" starring Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly. He elaborated:

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"Marty is in a land where he's isolated. He's in another time zone. So you can go all the way back to that."

'Flight' Was a Critical Hit and Performed Well at the Box Office

The action thriller was a critical and commercial success. It grossed $161,772,375 on a budget of $31 million. Washington received his sixth Academy Award nomination, and Gatins got a nod for Best Original Screenplay.

The late Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Roger Ebert called Washington's "brave and tortured" performance "one of his very best." He noted that the actor kept the audience sympathetic to his character through his harrowing personal journey.

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He praised the star for not going the route many other performers might have taken by leaning into big emotional scenes, "Washington depends on his eyes, his manner and a gift for projecting inner emotion."

The Chicago Sun-Times writer said the movie was "nearly flawless," also mentioning Don Cheadle's "grounded motivations," John Goodman's turn as a drug dealer, and Brian Geraghty's panic as the co-pilot as an effective means to underline "the horror."

On Vulture, David Edelstein wrote, "No actor is as brilliant, or as cunning, as Denzel Washington at portraying superhuman coolness and the scary prospect of its loss." He stressed the actor's "control" for making his character believable.

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Marshall Fine of the Huffington Post pointed out that Zemeckis' film "is a character study disguised as a thriller." Where it could have been a "dark conspiracy tale," Zemeckis "examines one man's struggle with his own demons," brought to the foreground by his situation.

Associated Press Christy Lemire thought that the Academy Award-nominated picture could have quickly spiraled into a Lifetime Movie-like production with its themes of self-destruction had it not been for the acting and how the film was crafted.

Sarah Allen Benton, a mental health counselor and author of "Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic," found "Flight" to be "an accurate and insightful portrayal" of a high-functioning alcoholic (HFA).

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Writing in Psychology Today, she noted how loved ones of an HFA can be in "secondary denial." Whitaker's union representation and lawyer acquire drugs or the pilot when they find him passed out on the day of the hearing to make him seem "high functioning."

This is also how the disgraced pilot convinces an air stewardess, played by Tamara Tunie, to lie for him on the record about his appearance on the morning of the crash.

The author highlighted the parallels between Kelly Reilly's character, a heroin addict, and the protagonist's condition. "Whip's 'high-functioning' addictions were just as serious and dangerous as Nicole's "junkie" lifestyle, but that society views them differently," she says.

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