In the movie "Flight," for which Denzel Washington scored an Oscar nomination, a brilliant pilot successfully lands a catastrophically damaged plane, saving scores of lives, even though this captain was high as he sat behind the throttle. To some degree, John Gatins' Academy Award-nominated screenplay is a dark and complex riff on the Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger story, the so-called miracle on the Hudson emergency landing that saved an entire plane of people in 2009.
What if the man in the Sullenberger seat with the Sullenberger skill set, the movie asks, was a self-loathing alcoholic whose disregard for the rules put everyone at risk? Could his acts, performed while three sheets to the wind, still qualify as heroic? Especially if you had a loved one on that plane.
It's an excellent question, not entirely dissimilar from one that longtime fans of cyclist Lance Armstrong had in their heads last week as they watched the eye-popping spectacle of the athlete reportedly admitting to Oprah Winfrey that he took performance-enhancing drugs, following a long-standing series of total denials. Does this invalidate everything in Armstrong's career? All of it? Every last push of the pedal? Every last thing that made Armstrong so singular?
The entire Armstrong affair is, of course, suffused with all-too-familiar double standards. There was the sight last week of a buoyed Winfrey, happy to be back in the media spotlight after the recent brand-diminishing struggles of the Oprah Winfrey Network, talking up the exclusive interview on network news shows, which gave a forum to a man who had lied to all and sundry for months, if not years, about this very topic.
If it was generally accepted that the revelations, not to mention the lies, rendered Armstrong's athletic heroism moot, then wither the morality of allowing him such a high-profile venue to change his tune for various legal and personal reasons?
Unless you take the purely cynical view of fame, with money and ratings trumping all — and such a view has a lot to recommend it along the Armstrong-Winfrey celebrity axis — then the only plausible explanation is that some of Armstrong's former greatness survives in our collective head. If we really felt that the doping had totally killed all that, surely we'd no longer be remotely interested in the man and be disinclined to contribute to those Winfrey ratings.
On the one hand, most of us embrace the logic of a zero-tolerance policy toward drugs and alcohol — we don't want our pilots flying drunk or our young athletes abusing their bodies — but, there, in the back of our skulls, lies the nagging realization that certain compromised individuals can still startle us with their achievements, even as they break our hearts with their flaws. Role models are never quite as simple as they teach us in school.
There are also some useful observations on this topic in the Stephen Adly Guirgis drama, "The Motherf***er with the Hat," currently on view at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. The most interesting character in this play about a young, Puerto Rican couple (Jackie and Veronica) fighting off mutual addictions is that of Ralph D., played at Steppenwolf by Jimmy Smits.
Ralph D. is the sponsor (in the Alcoholics Anonymous sense of the term) of Jackie, the young protagonist trying to hold his life together. Ralph D. is relentless when it comes to preaching the language of sobriety for Jackie, arguing that he can have nothing unless he stays sober, but that does not stop Ralph D. from messing around with Jackie's girlfriend. When confronted with the apparent hypocrisy of that position, this Guirgis character argues, in essence, that no one promises the addict that his sponsor will be a great or even a good man and thus the sponsor has no such obligation. His only duty is to help his charge stay away from the dope and the alcohol. Armstrong apparently lacked a Ralph D., and is reportedly prepared to allege in a courtroom that he was surrounded by a very different crew of enablers.
During the speech given by Smits at Steppenwolf, you can hear murmurs in the audience as people mull Ralph D.'s arresting and counter-intuitive point. Is he merely selling Jackie a self-serving bill of goods, much as Armstrong was selling Winfrey and her viewers last week? Or is he making a crucial point about how mentors and heroes are never as perfect as we would wish?
One logical conclusion from all this is that you can only really take care of yourself, and be very careful of the company you keep. But if you're sitting helpless in coach class, or awed in the stands while believing in Armstrong, it's worth holding fast to the truth that while drugs and alcoholism don't always seem to cause those in their clutches to crash — some high-achievers can coast for a while — they still tend to extract their toll in the end.
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