Dopers, liars, and questionable heroes have been in the news a lot lately, thanks to both Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens being snubbed for the Baseball Hall of Fame and Lance Armstrong getting set to finally admit to doping to Oprah Winfrey.
I’m fascinated by these men as uniquely tragic figures—Shakespearean almost: Lauded as heroes while harboring a secret that could be their complete undoing. It’s too simple to suggest that they are merely living dual lives—faking it in public, while privately racked with guilt and the fear of being caught. Because there is something else all three of these men share—massive chips on their shoulders. They know that they are great, with or without the drugs. They know that they worked extremely hard for their success. They know that other, less famous or talented athletes have done the exact same thing. (For the record, in the case of Clemens, I'm speaking of an alleged use of steroids. It hasn't been proven.)
I’ve always thought that this fascinating mindset—the daily horror of living a lie coupled with the endless mechanism for self-justification and rationalization—would make an excellent subject for a film.
And then I realized I already saw that film. It was called Flight.
If you haven’t seen Flight, here’s the plot (spoilers, obvs): Denzel Washington plays a pilot named Whip Whitaker. He’s manning a plane that has a massive engine failure and he makes an emergency crash landing. A couple of lives are lost, but it could’ve been a helluva lot worse. In fact, everyone agrees that what Whip did was not only extremely brave and heroic, but that he was the only pilot in the world who could’ve orchestrated such a landing.
Whip is, naturally, celebrated as a “Sully”-style hero. But he has one tiny secret: He’s an alcoholic who was wasted when he landed the plane.
Does it matter? Should it matter? Is Whip any less of hero?
Obviously, the Whip story and the doping athletes story is not completely analogous (Whip’s performance wasn’t IMPROVED by being drunk), but his response—a kind of self-righteous anger against anyone who questions him—seems spot-on, and gets right to the mindset of these elite athletes and their misguided sense of entitlement.
We may never see a great actor like Denzel Washington in The Barry Bonds Story (oh well), but we don’t really need to. His Whip Whitaker gets to the very essence of a compromised hero who has found a way to live with a terrible lie. Want insight into Lance, Roger, and Barry? See the film.