Thanks to Master Cat! Ben Frahm, who will be teaching at our one-day seminar on January 26, 2013, for this keen breakdown of the Denzel Washington starrer.

Writer: John Gatins

Director: Robert Zemeckis


Opening Image:

— A plane takes off. It’s early morning. And the weather appears stormy. A glowing neon sign atop a hotel reads, “American Value Suites.”

— WHIP WHITAKER (Denzel Washington) wakes up in bed. Hung-over. Drugs everywhere. And a mostly naked STEWARDESS (KATERINA) walking around.


— Whip takes a phone call in bed. It’s his EX-WIFE. And she’s not happy. He’s not making his child-payments. And their son needs to go to a better school. Whip is good at dodging her remarks and quickly gets off the phone.

— Whip is hung-over still. So he does a line of cocaine in order to get ready for his flight that morning.

— Based on what we’ve seen so far, we can tell this is usual behavior.

— Whip’s ready to fly. But the weather’s still iffy. His CO-PILOT (A NERVOUS YOUNG GUY) shows concern.

— The flight takes off, headed towards Orlando. But not before Whip slams two mini-wine coolers, just to help nurse his hangover some more. Whip quickly hides the empty bottles in the trash.


Calm before the storm
Calm before the storm


— The stormy weather persists. Whip has to accelerate the plane in order to punch through. And does so, successfully.

— However, one of the engines goes out. They start to lose control. And nose dive. A series of technical failures occur, and it appears they have absolutely no control over the trajectory of the plane.

— The Co-Pilot panics. But Whip knows what to do. It’s clear he’s an incredibly skilled and confident pilot.

— Whip inverts the plane. They are now upside-down, and this pulls them out of their downward spiral. And just in time, Whip regains upright movement, and glides to a somewhat safe landing in a field.

— Fire. Smoke. Rescue vehicles. And screaming missionaries from a nearby Pentecostal church, come running. And we slowly fade out.


— Whip wakes up in the hospital. He’s pretty banged up. But will be okay.

— Footage on the TV lets us know there were six fatalities in the crash. One of them was Katerina, the stewardess that we met in the opening scene.

— The media has already started calling Whip a hero for his miraculous landing.

— The NTSB (investigation team) is there to help gather information and testimony as to what happened.

— A union rep, MR. ANDERSON (Bruce Greenwood), is there to represent Whip and discuss the nuances of the flight that day.

— Whip tells Anderson that he did everything right. It was the plane that failed. Technical problems were responsible for those deaths. Nothing he did.

— And so this starts our debate. What will happen to Whip? Will they find out he had drugs in his system? And had been drinking? Will his addiction be discovered through this catastrophe? Or will he continue to be called a hero?

Break into Two:

— Whip knows he has to get out of the hospital. And calls his drug-buddy, HARLING (the hilarious John Goodman), who brings some cash. They plan to leave the hospital the next day. Whip will go to his farmhouse instead of his main residence to avoid the media frenzy.

— That night in the hospital, Whip shares a cigarette with a fellow patient, NICOLE (Kelly Reilly). She’s in for overdosing on heroin. And we know she struggles with addiction just like Whip.

B Story:

— Whip and Nicole’s conflicted and tumultuous relationship will be our B Story. She will help teach Whip the theme and serve as a mentor as the story continues. “Devious minds think alike.”

Theme Stated:

— A CANCER PATIENT at the hospital tells Whip: “random act of God? You survived a crash. And now you meet a beautiful girl in the stair. Fuck you man. At least you’re alive.”

Fun and Games:

— The next day, Whip escapes the hospital and goes to his farmhouse. We see remnants of a previous life. Pictures of his wife. And kid. Who are no longer a part of his life.

— Whip has to get clean. He has to stop drinking and abusing drugs. He empties out his house. Flushes everything. He’s serious this time.

— Whip starts to fix up an old plane that he used to fly with his father.

— Whip goes to meet with Mr. Anderson, the union rep, and a lawyer, HUGH LANG (Don Cheadle), who will represent him throughout this investigatory process.

— Whip becomes defensive with the lawyer. Tells him he did nothing wrong. And the lawyer tells him that they found alcohol and drugs in his toxicology/blood report after the crash. The NTSB will continue their investigation. And the lawyer will need Whip’s complete cooperation as they move towards the final testimony in front of the NTSB board.

— Whip leaves lunch early. Offended. Scared. And filled with anxiety. And so where does he turn? He starts drinking again.

— And goes to see his friend from the hospital, Nicole. She is having landlord problems. And needs a place to stay.

— So Nicole moves into Whip’s farmhouse.

— Their romance begins. And Nicole, who has started AA classes, does her best to keep Whip clean.

Our hero is crashing.

— Whip and the lawyer go to the scene of the crash. Whip confesses to everything. Says he drank before the flight. He drank the night before. And he did drugs, too. However, that plane crashed because of technical failure. And if it weren’t for his heroic landing, there would be a hundred people dead, instead of six.

— The lawyer tells Whip that the owner of the airline wants to talk with him tomorrow. He’s concerned about the financial ramifications of the crash and six deaths. Someone has to pay.

— The OWNER OF THE AIRLINE knows of Whip’s reckless and rambunctious behavior. But the lawyer reassures him not to worry. The tests at the hospital were flawed. The machines were dated. And the airline is only responsible for four deaths, as two were airline employees. The lawyer tells everyone not to worry.

— But Whip worries. He returns to drinking that night. And this causes tension in his relationship with Nicole, who is still doing her best to stay sober.

— The next morning, Nicole and Whip talk. She wants him to come to AA classes with her.

— Whip attends the funeral of Katerina, the stewardess that he used to sleep with.

— At the funeral, he sees the other stewardess, Margaret: who is religious; a loving mother; and Whip asks her to basically lie if she has to testify in front of the NTSB. Whip says that he only had two glasses of wine the night before the flight. Margaret knows about his addiction. But Whip is her friend. And after a tearful exchange, she agrees to lie on his behalf.

— Whip goes to an AA meeting with Nicole. He is the only one there who refuses to call himself an alcoholic.

— That night, Whip returns to the hospital to see his CO-PILOT and his wife. The Pilot was severely injured in the crash and his wife is not happy with Whip. They know he was drinking. But to our surprise, they are willing to vouch for Whip because they are convinced it was “God’s will” that they survived. And it is now their duty to continue the “Lord’s message.” Whip is relieved. But we can tell his guilt is intensifying.

— Whip returns to the farmhouse and continues fixing up his small plane. Whip tells Nicole that he wants to get away. He wants to go to Jamaica to get away from all of this. And he wants her to go with him.

— Nicole pulls away. She’s not so sure this is a good idea. And this causes Whip to become angry. And start drinking again.

— Nicole realizes that she can’t stay healthy with this kind of behavior. And…


— Nicole leaves Whip. This devastates him. And throws him into another drinking binge.


Media maelstrom.
Media maelstrom.

Bad Guys Close In:

— And to make matters worse, Whip visits the lawyer at the airport hanger. The plane that crashed is there. And workers continue their investigation of the contents inside.

— The lawyer tells Whip that they have a problem. One of the investigators found two mini-wine bottles in the garbage. No one had access to these. Except for the Stewardesses and Whip. And the Stewardesses didn’t show any traces of alcohol in their toxicology reports.

— This new information could send Whip to jail for the rest of his life.

— Whip starts drinking more and more. His addiction is getting out of control.

— He goes to visit his EX-WIFE and SON. Whip is drunk. And he starts yelling. His son throws him out of the house.

— And outside, newscasters have gathered to get footage of the heroic pilot. Whip pulls it together and makes sure he doesn’t come across drunk.

— But Anderson sees the news footage and tells Whip that he has to lay low. No more drinking. No more erratic behavior. The NTSB testimony is only a few days away.

— Whip knows he needs help. And asks to stay at Anderson’s house. Anderson instead secures a hotel room for Whip. And makes sure a GUARD is there to supervise him at all times.

All Is Lost:

— At the secure hotel room. It’s the night before the NTSB testimony. The guard watches Whip’s every move. And his refrigerator has been emptied of any and all liquor.

— That night, Whip can’t sleep. And he sneaks into the adjoining room via a side door. There, a FULL LIQUOR fridge is discovered. And Whip can’t resist.

Dark Night of the Soul:

— Whip drinks all of the liquor in the fridge.

— Whip gets extremely drunk.

— And the next morning, when the lawyer and Anderson come to get him for the testimony, they find a passed out Whip. Blood is on the floor. It appears that Whip got so drunk that he fell and hit his head (Blake used to call this, the WHIFF OF DEATH moment).

— Hours before the testimony, Whip is barely conscious. And he appears to still be drunk.

— So whom do they call to fix the problem? Enter, HARLING—Whip’s drug-buddy that we met earlier in the hospital. Harling knows just what to do…

— Harling brings cocaine to help sober Whip. And it actually works.

— So now, Whip will be testifying high on cocaine.

Break into Three:

— At the NTSB TESTIMONY. Whip appears to be okay. They don’t know what kind of state he’s in.

— And after all of the evidence is examined, it appears Whip is going to get off okay. And not go to jail.

— However, Whip must testify that Katerina was the one who drank the two wine bottles. Whip must lie. And not only that, but defame the reputation of a person he loved… in doing so.

— CLOSE ON WHIP. He’s faced with a tough decision: lie and get off free— and blame Katerina for the reckless drinking on the flight; or confess and go to jail.

— Whip makes the right decision. And this is our BREAK INTO THREE. Whip confesses. To everything. And for the first time he confesses to having a drinking problem. And being an alcoholic.


— DISSOLVE TO: we’re in jail. And we’re listening to Whip talk with some fellow INMATES. He tells his story. And for the first time, Whip says he feels alive. He feels free from his addiction. He’s been sober for over a year now.

— Pictures in the jail cell tell us that Nicole is back in Whip’s life. And that he has made amends with his Ex-wife.

— Whip has finally started putting his life back together. And if his good behavior continues, Whip will be released in a few years.

Final Image:

— Whip has a visitor. He walks outside to find his once estranged SON.

— The son is writing an essay for college. It’s titled “THE MOST FASCINATING PERSON THAT I’VE NEVER MET.” The son needs his father’s help in writing it. And as they talk and catch up, we know that Whip has been given another chance. And this time he won’t mess it up.