After a night of partying, airline pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) wakes up in his hotel room with flight attendant Katerina Marquez (Nadine Velazquez). He takes a phone call from his ex-wife, who is asking him for money to help pay for their son's private school tuition. He snorts a line of cocaine, and then goes to work.
While boarding the plane, there is a heavy rainstorm. When taking off, the plane experiences a large amount turbulence, startling the passengers along with his co-pilot Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty). Whip decides to speed up and continue to climb through the turbulence since he knows that going through it will put them in clearer airspace that his equipment detects is ahead. They make it through just fine. Whip speaks to the passengers and alerts them that due to the turbulence, they will not be offering beverage service, while at the same time, he mixes himself a screwdriver. He goes back into the cockpit and takes a nap as Ken mans the jet.
In Atlanta, Nicole (Kelly Reilly) is making a phone call while muttering "Don't pick up," though the person on the other line answers. She asks him if he can supply her with drugs (She is a heroin addict, evident from her arms), and he has her meet him at the set of a pornography shoot. Upon arrival, she decides that she doesn't want to do it (The film producer offers her money if she will perform anal sex on camera) but still desperately wants drugs. Her friend who invited her follows her to the door and offers her drugs, but he turns down her money. He is adamant about her not injecting it (which she agrees to since she is trying to kick that habit) but only smoking it. Upon getting to her low-rent apartment, Nicole finds her landlord inside, who is giving her a hard time about being behind in rent while pointing out her "fancy" camera. After eventually pushing him out, she knocks a box down from her table. A needle falls out of it, which she stares at and ends up using. Her landlord returns to her apartment (since he could smell the drugs), and she is eventually taken out on a stretcher.
While approaching their destination of Atlanta, the plane begins to dive, which startles everyone and awakens Whip. He takes over and tries everything he can, but the plane doesn't seem to respond properly. To Ken's shock, Whip rolls the plane upside down, which ends up stabilizing the plane and slowing down its descent. In the process, one of the flight attendants is knocked unconscious (as she had gotten out of her seat to close an open overhead storage bin, against Katerina's suggestions). A child falls out of her seat, and Katerina unbuckles herself to help the child get back into his seat, upside-down. Whip is able to flip the plane right-side-up again, though, at that point, all of the engines have failed, but they are able to maintain a glide. He crash lands it into an open field and is knocked unconscious. He snaps in and out of consciousness while being pulled out of the plane, seeing images of his injured co-pilot, a bloody flight attendants, and the wreckage.
Whip eventually wakes up completely in a hospital, where he sees Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood), a friend of his who is a representative of the airline. He tells Whip that what he did was heroic, and out of the 102 people on the plane, 96 survived, with the six people who died being composed of four passengers and two crew members. Concerned, Whip asks who the crew members were, but Charlie says that the NTSB has to be the first to make initial contact with him to confirm anything with him.
The NTSB officials enter the room to confirm everything, making sure that Whip remembers everything. They confirm the number of survivors, but Whip asks which crew members died. Katerina was one of them which brings Whip to tears, silently. His doctor confirms that none of his injuries are life-threatening, and despite a slight concussion, he has no broken bones and should be able to leave the hospital fairly soon.
The next day, Whip's neighbor Harling Mays (John Goodman), who also happens to be his drug dealer, shows up to his bedside with a variety of supplies -- cigarettes, pornographic magazines and booze. Harling tells him of how he is being portrayed as a hero, citing that various news vans are crowding the hospital along with their housing complex. He leaves, telling him that he will bring him back some clothes for whenever he is ready to leave, but Whip asks him to go to his freezer and grab a Ziplock bag labeled as "Veal."
That night, Whip sneaks out into the staircase to enjoy a cigarette, where he sees Nicole, also having a cigarette. They speak briefly, and when asked if he was on the plane, Whip confirms but passes himself off as having been a passenger. Another patient walks up the staircase from a lower floor, confirming that he is a cancer patient (evident from his bald head from his chemotherapy) but also wanting a cigarette and being in very high spirits, even making a joke about how his "cancer might be cancerous." He is very talkative but somewhat charming, taking notice to Nicole's drug addiction when looking at her arms (though he constantly remarks on how beautiful he thinks she is), all te while recognizing Whip as the pilot of the plane crash, which he cites as having been an act of God. He rambles for a bit about how it's easier to believe in God since it lets him relax, knowing that things aren't in his control, but in God's, so no matter what he does, it won't change anything that God planned. He also talks about how he really thinks life is beautiful while joking with Whip saying that God sent Whip a sign by having him survive a plane crash then meeting a beautiful girl in a hospital staircase. He leaves Whip and Nicole once hearing a downstairs staircase door open (saying that people are probably looking for him), which prompts Nicole to leave as well, though Whip asks for her address since he'd like to stay in touch.
Harling picks up Whip, who he transports silently away from the hospital. Whip asks him to take him to his deceased father's farm, where he knows he will be away from the media, who are clearly posted at his condo. (The package marked "Veal" contains stacks of money.) Upon arriving at the farm, Whip immediately clears out his supply of alcohol, dumping all bottles and cans into his sink while also flushing a stash of drugs. However, he does this for a while as alcohol is seemingly stashed everywhere -- in the fridge, in the cabinet, in the pantry, in various boxes throughout the house -- and it's clear that he has an alcohol problem, though he is taking steps to correct it. While watching some old family footage of himself, his father and his son, the landline receives a phone call, though he lets it go to the answering machine. It ends up being Charlie, who is inviting him out for breakfast to discuss a few things.
Whip meets Charlie and meets Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle). They talk, and everything seems fine, but Whip is asking why an attorney is present, especially after finding out that Hugh's specialty is criminal negligence. Hugh cites that, despite Whip's heroic actions, six people are still dead, and the toxicology report, (which Whip wasn't aware had been conducted in the hospital) shows that he had alcohol and cocaine in his system. While stern, he asserts that he is onboard to help Whip and can "kill the report," though Whip gets up and leaves, a bit displeased at his situation. On his way out, he stops by the hotel bar and orders an orange juice. When asked if he wanted anything else, he also orders a double vodka, which is poured into a separate glass. He hesitates at first, then drinks the glass, later going to the market to buy beer.
While driving around the city (with a beer in hand), he ends up passing by the street where Nicole lives, who he spots loading boxes into her car, and drives up behind her. He hears an argument and runs up the stairs, and finds Nicole's landlord arguing with her. He pushes the landlord to the ground, telling him to leave her alone, but the landlord insists that he is owed money and will take her to court. Whip says that he will waste his time going to court over a $1,000 debt while encouraging him to "make a deal." The landlord says he will take $700, but Whip gives him $400 and leaves with Nicole, who tells him that her car doesn't run and obviously doesn't really have a plan, so he takes her to his farm.
That night, she is very thankful for what he's done for her (just being nice to her, defending her from her landlord and contributing to clear her debt with him and also letting her stay with him). Having been a masseuse (as mentioned briefly in the staircase at the hospital), she starts to massage his leg (which is still injured from the crash), and eventually moves up his body and kisses him. They sleep together that night.
In the morning, Hugh shows up at the farm and takes Whip to the crash site, where the wreckage is still located, though the NTSB is conducting investigations. He assures Whip that he can get rid of the toxicology report but reminds him that he is going to be watched closely and must avoid drinking and any other negative behaviors, which Whip agrees to. When returning to the farm, he drinks heavily and is found by Nicole (who returns home at night) with numerous bottles surrounding him. He mumbles drunkenly, then collapses on his table, though she places a blanket on top of him.
The next morning, he talks to Nicole, who is really enjoying the farm, talking about how beautiful it is and how she loves taking pictures of the scenery. She begins to open up about her life, talking about how close she was to her mother (who had passed away from breast cancer) while citing how much closer they grew in her last days though Whip is holding her camera and snaps a picture of her smiling while talking about it. Whip also opens up about how the farm belonged to his late father while also talking about having an ex-wife and a son.
During this time, he goes to Katerina's funeral, where he sees Margaret Thompson (Tamara Tunie), who was one of the surviving flight attendants. Concerned about his potential issue due to the toxicology report, he lies to her about having had "two glasses of wine" the night before, which Margaret shoots down immediately since she said that Katerina had told her that they had partied all night and hardly slept. Tearfully, Margaret relents and just asks Whip what he wants her to say, and he just says that he wants her to state that it was just a regular day.
Charlie and Hugh are meeting with the owner of the airline, who is also an owner of a professional baseball team, having inherited it from his father, who in the past had wanted to acquire the airline. The owner clearly doesn't care much for the airline and really wants to get rid of it, though Charlie (who represents the airline) suggests for him to keep it while being thankful for his involvement. But when asked, Charlie confirms that he had known Whip for a long time since they were both U.S. Navy pilots while confirming that Whip is an excellent pilot, though he does drink heavily. Hugh mentions that he should be able to get the toxicology report thrown out due to certain technicalities (i.e. the test equipment used not having been calibrated within a reasonable amount of time, the name of the hospital staff who drew the samples not having been documented), though the owner is focused on what he has to do about the six victims. Hugh states that he really only has to worry about the four passengers since the two crew members are covered under their standard workers comp insurance, as outlined in the airline's union agreement. That aside, the owner is adamant about expecting Whip to go to prison, which Hugh disagrees with.
Whip is picking Nicole up from a local store where she had been hired, and her first day went very well. She is happy to have her life starting to piece together. He says that they should "celebrate," which doesn't make Nicole happy, though she asks if they can postpone celebrating, which Whip is fine with. She mentions having been invited to attend an AA meeting with a sponsor of hers (who is helping her rehabilitate and also with getting her job), which she also invites Whip to attend. He goes with her, but eventually leaves halfway when hearing a speaker tell the room about his experiences with how he would lie about his alcohol consumption, which lead him to lie about everything else. Nicole said she can get a ride from her sponsor, who ends up dropping her off later on that evening.
When she gets home, she finds Whip in the airplane hangar at the farm (which contains his father's plane. He tells her that he learned to fly on it while also having flown it to Jamaica). He is working on the plane, though she is displeased to see him drinking at the same time while also spotting a line of cocaine ready to be snorted on top of his tool chest. He suggests to her that they fly to Jamaica, which she likes, but she points out that he's in no condition to fly and has a problem. He lashes out at her, accusing her of having done sexual favors in exchange for drugs (which upsets her as she adamantly denies ever having done that). While yelling at her as she walks away, she says that he drinks "by choice" and has a reason to, since he is divorced and has a son who doesn't like him. He later follows her into the bedroom and apologizes to her, just stating that he is having a difficult time since he may go to prison. He hugs her and falls asleep in her arms, talking about how he wants her to flee the country with her and that he will get help, and she can leave him if he doesn't. The next morning, she leaves him a letter (likely outlining her plans to leave him while reiterating that she thinks he has a drinking problem, though she obviously cares for him) then departs the farm with her sponsor. Upon waking up, Whip finds the letter and angrily throws his bottle of alcohol at the wall.
Later on, Whip is driving around with a sports bottle filled with orange juice and vodka, which he drinks from heavily, then goes into an airplane hangar where the wreckage is now stored. He meets Charlie and Hugh there, both of whom confirm with him that the toxicology report was indeed thrown out. Whip thinks that everything is fine until Hugh tells him that the NTSB found two empty vodka bottles in the plane's trash can, which had to have been consumed by one of the crew members since the beverage service was not offered. Whip quickly acknowledges that they were his (and had been drinking on the flight) while also saying that he had actually drunk three bottles, so one was missing. Charlie and Hugh criticize him for his recklessness, which encourages Whip to storm out, but not before Hugh confirms with Whip that the NTSB had recreated the situation on a flight simulator, and all ten test pilots crashed, showing Whip's skills having saved everyone, despite his condition.
Entering a bar, just before ordering a drink, he sees his co-pilot on TV, as he has awakened from his coma. He quickly visits him at the hospital, though Ken is not pleased to see him as he stated that both of his legs are broken while also having a permanently damaged pelvis, likely preventing him from walking again, let alone flying. He talks about Whip having wreaked of booze while also confirming that had anyone else flown the plane, they all would have died. Before leaving, Ken stops him and says that while he had already been interviewed by the NTSB, he left his "opinions" of Whip's condition out of his statement since he viewed everything as a sign from God, which pleases Whip.
He ends up stopping by a house, which ends up belonging to his ex-wife, who is not excited to see him. He is clearly drunk, yelling from the bottom of the stairs to call his son down. She gets the phone to call the police while their son storms downstairs and curses Whip out, demanding that he leave. Laughingly, Whip grabs his son in a bear hug, though his son is clearly upset and continuously pushes him off and tells him to leave. Upon walking out, there is a media frenzy outside of the property (as he had been spotted), and despite being drunk, Whip pulls himself together and speaks to the cameras, saying that he will give his side of the story soon but asking them to respect his family's privacy during that time, and they comply, right as the police arrive to escort him out.
Driving home, the media is already at the farm, so he turns around and goes to Charlie's house. Charlie chastises him for his actions (especially having been caught on camera at his ex-wife's house, which Whip tries to turn around stating that the media viewed it as a positive thing) but allows him to stay since the NTSB hearing is in ten days.
The day before the hearing, Charlie and Hugh check him into a hotel room, where he can stay. He confirms that he feels good and has been sober for a whole nine days (and 22 hours). He stays in the room, which is guarded on the outside. He smiles at his refrigerator being filled with only non-alcoholic beverages. Oddly, he keeps hearing a thumping noise from the next door room, which keeps him up through the night. Curious, he opens his door to the next door room, which was left accidentally unlocked. He walks in and glances out on the open balcony (which had been allowing the wind to blow the door thump against the wall) and notices an airplane fly by, then he turns to the refrigerator, which is fully stocked with alcohol. He pulls out one bottle of vodka, opens it, then closes it and leaves it on the fridge. Seconds later, his hand sweeps across and grabs it.
The next morning, Charlie and Hugh stop by, but no one is answering the door. The security guard has a key and opens it, and they find the room to be wrecked -- overturned furniture, tilted paintings, empty bottles everywhere -- with Whip passed out in the bathroom with a head injury from hitting the toilet seat. In a panic due to the hearing starting within an hour, they help him clean up, but Whip says he needs cocaine. Reluctantly, Harling is called, and he supplies Whip with several lines of cocaine (which Charlie and Hugh pay for, but as an attorney, Hugh cleverly hands the money to Charlie first to give to Harling rather than giving it to him directly). Whip immediately stands up and seems to be in good form.
They make it to the hearing, where Ellen Block (Melissa Leo), head of the NTSB investigation, is presenting findings, applauding Whip's quick-thinking and actions while also citing that there was an equipment failure caused by poor maintenance, which is what caused the plane to drop. But in accordance with their investigations, Ellen asks Whip, who is under oath, if he had been drinking during the days leading up to the flight, which he denies. She also asks him if he had been drinking the day of the flight, which he also denies. Afterward, she brings up the toxicology reports, of the crew members, where she said that several tested clean, while one test was dismissed for technical reasons and not admissible in the hearing (which was clearly Whip's, since Hugh had it thrown out), though she also mentioned that one test came up positive -- Katerina's. Her BAC was shown to be more than double the legal limit to drive, while Ellen cited that Katerina had prior drinking issues and had attended AA in the past. When asked if he thinks that Katerina had been the one to drink the bottles of vodka, Whip hesitates -- asking her to repeat the question, mumbling a few works (which Ellen asks him to repeat) and eventually saying that he did not think that Katerina drank the alcohol. Looking at her picture on the projector screen, he feels guilty (similarly to how he felt upon learning that she was one of the crew members to have died since she had unbuckled herself to help a child passenger) and admits that he was the one to drink it, not hers. Refusing to tarnish Katerina's image, he confessed to having drank on the nights leading up to the flight and also on the flight itself. He tearfully admits to being an alcoholic and to having a problem.
Whip is next seen talking about his alcohol problems to other inmates in prison in a group therapy session, where he states he has been for 13 months and will likely be there for another four or five years. He talks about being proud to be sober while having written to the families of the deceased passengers to offer his condolences, and is later seen in his prison cell, where he is shown to have a lot of support -- letters of congratulations for being sober, pictures from his son and also pictures with Nicole (with whom he had reconnected), especially the image that he himself took when she was at his farm. He is notified of having a visitor, who ends up being his son, who wishes to interview him for a report for his personal statement for his college applications, which pleases Whip.
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