It’s no secret that I loved the movie ‘Flight’ and that I was on a one-woman campaign for Denzel Washington to be nominated for Best Actor, which happened this morning. (Hooray!) But to my pleasant surprise, John Gatins was also nominated for Best Original Screenplay for ‘Flight.’ And though I’m torn on Daniel Day-Lewis vs. Denzel for Best Actor, I am certainly rooting for Gatins for Screenplay.
The trailer for ‘Flight’ was very misleading. It made it seem like ‘Flight’ was just a movie about a plane crash, but the actual crash was incidental. ‘Flight’ is a story about addiction and recovery and the tragic cycle of self-destructive instincts. It’s about hubris and morality, despite everything. It’s not an action film about a plane crash. It’s a small film about one man’s descent into alcoholism and drug addiction and about accepting responsibility for your actions and realizing you have a disease.
I saw ‘Flight’ with my father who is seven years sober this past November. He entered recovery for the final time when I was 17 after he blacked out and crashed his car on the highway. He’d been sober for two years before that and this was a relapse (hopefully his last). He is now super active in AA, leading meetings online and visiting the local jail to counsel inmates with substance abuse problems — something Denzel does in the film. So it was unexpectedly emotional to watch Denzel have just “one more hit, one more drink” on screen sitting beside my father.
At one critical point in the film, all Denzel needs to do is stay sober for one night so he can testify at a hearing about the doomed flight. For safe keeping, his lawyers lock him in a hotel room with no alcohol or drugs. But the door to the room next door is left open and Denzel comes across a mini-fridge full of liquor bottles. He slowly picks one up. (The audience members suck in breath through their teeth.) He places it on the counter and walks out of frame. (The audience sighs in relief.) There’s a beat — and then his hand swoops back into frame and he grabs the bottle. (The air goes out of the room.) It’s as frightening as any Anton Chigurh scene in ‘No Country For Old Men.’
My dad loved the movie too. He was most impressed by the two scenes I also loved: in AA’s rules, it says “we are not a glum lot” and so it was nice to see people in a meeting smiling and laughing like they do in real life — and more than that, he related heavily to the scene with the tiny liquor bottles.
After we saw the film, I had to look up and read about the screenwriter, John Gatins. I found that other journalists had had the same thought I did: whoever wrote this must have personal experience with addiction and alcoholism. Lo and behold, he did. Although he’s reluctant to talk about it, Gatins has about 20-25 years sober, depending on what interview you read — either way, he got sober in his early 20s. Gatins claims he never imagined people wanting to know his history as the screenwriter of the film, which is presumably fiction — Larry King asked him, “So are you a pilot or an alcoholic?” ‘Flight’ is so good and so accurate, it’s impossible to buy that Gatins isn’t at least one of those things.
‘Flight’ is a really personal film for Gatins. (Read this awesome breakdown from Vulture of how he wrote the stairway scene with the cancer patient, if you don’t get it yet.) I knew immediately from the tone of the writing and the striking accuracy — Denzel walks out of an AA meeting thinking he’s above their smiley, hopeful BS, an AA meeting is portrayed with laughter and story-telling and not the glum, itchy weirdness TV likes to show — that Gatins must have been in recovery himself. And when I looked online, he was intensely squirrely about the subject of his own sobriety. (Some AA and NA members have expressed concern that the film runs counter to the anonymity portion of the AA handbook.)
“It’s one of those cosmic jokes,” Gatins told the LA Times. “Oh yeah, that thing you’re really itchy about talking about, let’s put it out there really big this time.”
I’m sorry Gatins is uncomfortable but I’m glad he didn’t hold back or scrimp on the screenplay for ‘Flight’ because the level of intimacy with the subject matter and the seemingly unreachable redemption of his anti-hero addict pilot is exactly what makes ‘Flight’ the best portrayal of this disease and addiction recovery in a good long while. It’s just riveting and sad and you really get a fantastic grip on the terrifying, unstoppable effects alcoholism and addiction can have on one’s life and the life of those around them. “He nailed the behavior, the obsession, just the insanity,” my dad said. He would know.
And so would Gatins. He took a real risk and it paid off. Give the guy the Best Original Screenplay Oscar. He told the best, most meaningful recovery story I’ve heard outside of an actual AA meeting. (And believe me, those are hard to match.)