Therapeutic Movie Review
By Birgit Wolz, Ph.D., MFT
Screenplay: Laurie MacDonald, Walter F. Parkes, Jack Rapke, Steve Starkey, Robert Zemeckis
Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle, Kelly Reilly, John Goodman, Bruce Greenwood, Melissa Leo
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2012
This movie offers an example for Alcohol and Stimulant Cocaine Use Disorder according to the DSM-5. Symptams that indicate these disorders are highlighted in bold letters.
Airline captain Whip Whitaker wakes up in his Orlando hotel room with flight attendant Katerina Márquez after a night of sex, alcohol, and little sleep. He uses cocaine to stay awake when he boards SouthJet Flight 227 as pilot to Atlanta.
After Whip threads the plane through severe turbulence at takeoff, he asks copilot Ken Evans to fly the plane while he secretly mixes vodka in his orange juice and takes a nap. He is jolted awake by a mechanical failure triggered when the copilot initiates normal descent. The aircraft's elevator jams and throws the aircraft into a steep dive. Because the engines fail, he is unable to correct the situation by normal means. Whip rolls the plane upside down to arrest the dive and eventually maneuvers it right-side up just before executing a forced landing in a field. Whip loses consciousness on impact, is dragged out of the aircraft by a passenger, and awakens in an Atlanta hospital with minor injuries.
This film chronicles Whip Whitaker’s expert handling of the situation, and shows him to be a man brimming with psychological resilience. Clyman writes in his article,
Flight: Why Heros are Drug Addicts Too. - Examining a conflicted hero and the psychology of drug addiction: “With the broken plane crashing to the Earth and death staring him in the face, Whip remained calm. He triumphantly managed his anxiety so as to execute a dazzlingly intelligent plan that safely landed the plane and saved most of those on board; a plan, I might add, that he succeeded in executing only because he also succeeded in soothing and guiding his co-pilot and flight attendant into performing heroically as well.”
His old friend Charlie Anderson, who represents the airline's pilots union, and a cocaine drug dealer, Harling Mays, visit Whip in the hospital. Harling sneaks the pilot away. Whip drives to his late father's farm and dumps out all his alcohol. A National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) official informs him that he had saved 96 out of 102 people on board, but Katerina was among those killed. His attorney Hugh Lang explains that the NTSB had performed a hospital toxicology screen while he was unconscious, showing that Whip was intoxicated . This test has the potential to send him to prison on alcohol, drug, and manslaughter charges.
Hugh Lang finds a possibility to get the toxicology report voided on technical grounds. The night before the NTSB hearing, Whip is moved into a guarded hotel room to ensure he does not get intoxicated. His minibar has only nonalcoholic beverages, but upon opening a mistakenly unlocked door to the adjoining room, Whip discovers it has a full minibar. Charlie and Hugh find him the next morning passed out drunk. They call Harling, who revives him with cocaine for the hearing.
The lead NTSB investigator explains that a damaged elevator assembly jackscrew was the primary cause of the crash and asks a series of questions about Whip’s sobriety to which Whip lies. Then she asks a final question about an empty vodka bottles found in the trash of the plane. Since Katerina Márquez's toxicology report showed evidence of alcohol, the investigator asks Whip if it is his opinion that she drank it. Rather than lie and permanently taint her good name, Whip admits to drinking the vodka, flying intoxicated and also that he is intoxicated at the hearing.
Thirteen months later, an imprisoned Whip, serving a minimum five-year sentence, tells a support group of fellow inmates that he is glad to be sober and does not regret doing the right thing, because he finally feels "free." He also tells them that he lost his piloting license, but he didn't lose his way.
Clyman also writes:
“Throughout the film Whip is confronted with a storm of intense emotions. There’s the fear from having just barely managed to escape death during a fiery plane crash; there’s the anxiety of a looming congressional hearing that threatens to annihilate his professional life, and, more broadly, there’s the guilt at having abandoned his ex-wife and adolescent son. Whip can handle problems of the cockpit but he has no idea how to effectively manage all these overwhelming emotionally-charged events. Unfortunately, the same developmental process that taught him to hate himself also taught him to avoid the conflicts in his emotional and interpersonal life.
So, instead of soothing his stress with social support, he spends the movie isolating and withdrawing. He avoids the adoring media, keeps at arms-length those who want to love and support him, and lashes out at those who want nothing more than to ensure that his public image remain intact.
His personality structure is grounded in faulty interpersonal beliefs that other people can’t be trusted to help.
This is where drugs come into play. Drugs can be an incredibly appealing solution or problem-solving strategy for someone like Whip. Drugs offer an escape, a short-term silver bullet. Alcohol benders and cocaine rebounds serve to block the pain of self-hatred, albeit briefly, and exist as the only logical option to reduce emotions. Unfortunately, drug abuse doesn’t solve problems, it only delays them. Moreover, in a self-fulfilling prophecy, drug abuse is a habit that begins to reaffirm the dangerously maladaptive ideas Whip harbored about himself. For instance, it’s Whip’s long-standing drug addiction that likely estranged himself from his family in the first place, and it’s the unresolved pain of this familial unrest that reinforced that core belief of failurer; and it’s this accumulating amount of psychological pain that, in turn, overwhelmed coping resources that were never properly developed to begin with.
In the end, after struggling with addiction every step of the way, Whip achieves the impossible – he effectively treats his drug problem.”
Birgit Wolz wrote the following continuing education online courses:
Cinema Therapy - Using the Power of Movies In the Therapeutic Process, which guides the reader through the basic principles of Cinema Therapy.
Cinema Therapy with Children and Adolescents - This course teaches Cinema Therapy with young clients. It includes numerous movie suggestions, which are categorized according to age and issues. It serves therapists, teachers, and parents.
Positive Psychology and the Movies: Transformational Effects of Movies through Positive Cinema Therapy - This course teaches how to develop clinical interventions by using films effectively in combination with positive psychotherapy. It serves for mental health practitioners and anybody who is interested in personal growth and emotional healing.
Therapeutic Ethics in the Movies - What Films Can Teach Psychotherapists About Ethics and Boundaries in Therapy, which covers: confidentiality, self-disclosure, touch, dual relationships and out-of-office experiences (i.e., home visits, in-vivo exposures, attending a wedding, incidental encounters, etc.)
Boundaries and the Movies - Learning about Therapeutic Boundaries through the Movies, which covers informed consent, gifts, home office, clothing, language, humor and silence, proximity and distance between therapist and client, and, finally, sexual relations between therapist and client.
DSM: Diagnoses Seen in Movies - Using Movies to Understand Common DSM Diagnoses.
Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual (PDM) - A New Approach to Diagnosis in Psychotherapy