Zemeckis turns tricky topic to terrific cinema

Getty Images File PhotoNew themes: In “Flight

“Flight” is the most satisfying movie that director Robert Zemeckis has made since “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and the “Back to the Future” trilogy.

The strong screenplay by John Gatins nicely balances character development and humanity with gripping suspense and special effects in a story about a pilot who also is an alcoholic.

“This was one of those rare scripts,” said writer-director-producer Zemeckis, recently in San Franicsco to promote the movie. “The last time this happened is when I read ‘Forrest Gump.’ It was just so compelling.”

Denzel Washington stars as Whip Whitaker, a commercial airline pilot who pulls off the nearly impossible landing of a malfunctioning plane, and saves nearly everyone on board.

Unfortunately, the subsequent investigation sheds light on the fact that Whip was drunk while flying, and is a regular abuser of alcohol.

Zemeckis — winner of a best directing Oscar for “Forrest Gump” and at the helm of huge hits including “Contact,” “Cast Away” and “The Polar Express” — describes one incredible sequence in “Flight” that introduces a character, a cancer patient, who lays out all the movie’s themes and then never returns.

“That’s my favorite scene in the movie. It was like, ‘Can you do this in a modern movie?’” Zemeckis asks. “It’s like an ancient Greek chorus.”

At nearly eight pages, it’s the longest scene Zemeckis has ever included in a movie: “I didn’t cut one line of it out. I tried versions where I trimmed it down, and then I just had to put it all back in.”

He also made the most of his first attempt at tackling a tough theme such as alcoholism. He says, “This substance abuse is a symptom of a deeper, and I think universal issue — that feeling of being isolated. I think what we identify with is his desperate loneliness. To get any relief from that, he abuses anything that he can.”

While emphasizing the driving force of his compelling, strong and stubborn lead character, Zemeckis focuses on entertaining and dramatic suspense, rather than depressing problems.

He even manages tense Hitchcockian moments; there’s a great scene in which Whip waits alone in a hotel room the night before his hearing. It feels like something may go wrong, but what?

“Audiences don’t want to know what’s going to happen,” Zemeckis says. “They don’t want to be ahead of the movie. It’s this one simple request they have.”

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