Zemeckis at the controls of ‘Flight’ in return to live action movies

Story of heroic, but flawed, pilot

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NEW YORK — You might think that Robert Zemeckis, having devoted himself to motion-capture animation for the last 12 years, would be thrilled to return to the unpredictability of live-action filmmaking — those moments of serendipity when the elements align for something surprising.

You would be wrong.

“In my whole career I can count it on one hand,” said the director, recalling headaches like having to cart in snow while shooting in Moscow and painting fall foliage in October Vermont. “Every time I’ve ever been in a situation where, for example, it’s ‘Oh my God, look at this sky! Look at this sunset!’ — it’s never there in time. We always missed it. It’s just heartbreaking.”

“Flight” is Mr. Zemeckis‘ first live-action film since “Cast Away,” after which he, more than any other filmmaker, advanced the technology of performance capture with movies like “The Polar Express,” “Beowulf” and “A Christmas Carol.”

Instead, “Flight” gets its movie magic principally through its performances, especially that of Denzel Washington, who stars as perhaps the most functional alcoholic in movie history. As Captain Whip Whitaker, Mr. Washington plays an airline pilot who, despite being hung-over, drunk and coked-up, manages to bring down a rapidly deteriorating plane in a daring emergency landing on what should have been a routine hop between Orlando, Fla., and Atlanta.

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Denzel Washington (center) plays Whip Whitaker, a hero pilot with feet of ... more >

The crash sequence, a virtuoso set piece made with the digital artists from Mr. Zemeckis‘ animated films, features the unusual but effective maneuver of briefly flying the plane upside down. The thrilling crash, which essentially opens the film, is a kind of carrot for moviegoers who are then lured into a powerful character study of Whitaker as he wrestles with his drinking problem while his heroics are called into question. He’s a Captain Sully with demons.

“Can anything follow this plane crash?” Mr. Zemeckis asks. “But the real spectacle, of course, is Denzel’s performance.”

It’s one that many expect will land Mr. Washington his sixth Oscar nomination. (He’s won for “Glory” and “Training Day.”) His performance is a full portrait of a man who believes he’s in control when he isn’t, whose alcoholism is propelled by an inability to be honest with himself and others.

“A liar’s a liar, however you choose to lie or however you want to numb the pain,” said Mr. Washington, describing Whitaker. “He made a particular choice to numb the pain.”

Mr. Washington was drawn to the project by John Gatins’ (“Real Steel”) script, which Mr. Gatins had been working on since 1999. The screenplay surrounds Whitaker with an ensemble of characters who are either challenging him (Kelly Reilly as a recovering heroin addict, Melissa Leo as the crash investigator) or enabling him (Don Cheadle as a cocksure defense attorney, Bruce Greenwood as an old friend and fellow pilot, John Goodman as a drug dealer).

More than most protagonists, Whitaker often verges on unlikable.

“I’ve heard that from people, but that’s what’s good about a part in a movie,” Mr. Washington said. “People say, ‘What do you want me to get from it?’ I’m like: It depends what you bring to it. So some may not like him.”

It was that moral ambiguity that attracted Mr. Zemeckis, who constructs a story that poses questions for the audience about sympathy and acknowledging one’s own failings.

There have been many films over the years about memorable alcoholics — Ray Milland in “The Lost Weekend,” Jack Lemmon in “Days of Wine and Roses” and Nicolas Cage in “Leaving Las Vegas.” Asked if he consulted such films in making “Flight,” Mr. Zemeckis replied, “Only in what not to do.”

“If it’s just about somebody with chemical dependency, it lets everybody off the hook,” Mr. Zemeckis said. “It’s not relatable. But the fact that everybody — if you really have the courage to be honest with yourself — is flawed, that’s a universal theme. That’s what I was going for.”

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