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Should Brand-Name Alcohol Be Depicted in “Flight”?

The company that distributes Budweiser beer has voiced strenuous objections to the placement of its product in the latest Denzel Washington movie, Flight. Washington plays Whip Whitaker, a pilot for a top airline, who is seriously in need of alcohol rehab. Whitaker takes command of a flight while hung over from using coke and alcohol. He seizes the opportunity to sneak some vodka into his orange juice even as he assures his passengers that they have safely come through some extreme air turbulence.

When the plane begins to shake apart a few minutes later, he takes command of the aircraft and brings it to relative safety despite a frightened copilot and his own impairment. You would think the real crux of the story is whether Whitaker’s lawyer will successfully quash blood test results positive for cocaine and alcohol drawn immediately after the flight. After all, one might ask, he successfully saved most of the lives on board his plane; nobody else could have landed it as he did; so why should he be prosecuted for drunken flying?

But the real heart of the story surrounds Whitaker’s inability to stop drinking even as he enters a relationship with a woman who is embracing recovery after a serious overdose. She has reached out to him as a kindred spirit, and initially he vows to stay away from alcohol during the stages of the post-crash investigation.

When he falls off the wagon, she is torn between her deepening affection for him and the need to continue with her own recovery. She invites him to an AA meeting, but he silently denies his need for alcohol rehab when he refuses to admit his alcoholism in a room full of addicts.

That fall he takes off the wagon is more like a full-out crash. Budweiser is not the only adult beverage depicted in this movie. Whitaker drinks everything that’s not nailed down, and throughout his various binges you’ll see not only Budweiser but also Stolichnaya, Ketel, and countless other brands. In one scene he opens a refrigerator stocked with all manner of alcohol in those little hotel-sized bottles. And he drinks all of them.

Anheuser-Busch understandably does not want to be depicted as the company whose product makes people crash airplanes and take lives. It should, however, rethink its attitude toward this movie. As a promoter of drinking responsibly, Anheuser-Busch should consider that its product is one of many used in a man’s struggle to overcome alcohol addiction and reach into himself to find the real truth of his character.

Denzel Washington has earned his place as a top movie star both domestically and internationally with portrayals of characters battling gritty real-life scenarios. He played a quadriplegic in The Bone Collector who considers suicide as an end to a seemingly endless existence. In John Q, he portrays a father frustrated by the refusal of his health insurance company to pay for his son’s medical treatment. In Training Day, he won an Oscar showing us the vicious, dirty side of a cop—who is ultimately beaten by another cop with an overwhelmingly positive commitment to life and public service.

So in this movie, Washington’s performance demonstrates that a man can still reach into his inner core and find the truth. The movie’s producers prove that people in alcohol rehab can live full and happy lives. One would hope that the people who make Budweiser would take away that message and run with it—a message that’s worth repeating:  People in alcohol rehab can live fully and happy lives.

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