It’s just pure coincidence that Robert Zemeckis’s last two live-action films have a plane-crash at the core of their stories. In “Cast Away” (2000), FedEx employee Chuck Noland’s life takes a harrowing turn after a plane crash strands him on an unpopulated island. In “Flight” (2012), airline pilot Whip Whitaker pulls off the miraculous feat of crash-landing a plane after the aircraft’s tail snaps and sends it into a deep nosedive, losing only six lives in the process.
In an interview, Zemeckis reveals that a lot of people in his inner circle warned him that he would be known as the “plane-crash guy” if he bookended a decade devoted to computer-animation with plane-crash films. This concern didn’t deter him from taking on the project. “I (couldn’t) let this screenplay get away for that reason,” Zemeckis tells. “I said, ‘I got to do this, and if I have to do another plane-crash I will.’”
Having said that, the two films are very different. Even the nature of the plane crashes and the ways Zemeckis directs them set them apart. The plane crash in “Cast Away” is meant as a catastrophic incident in which “no one knows what the hell is going on, and all of a sudden you’re in the water.” On the other hand, Zemeckis basically dissects the entire crash in “Flight” into a barnstorming sequence. Here, it’s all about the pilot, his genius and impeccable control over the events allowing us to see everything that’s going on. “Two very dramatic things are going on,” Zemeckis reiterates.
Funnily enough, “Flight” is not so much about flying as it is about the pilot. After the plane crash, and after Whip is pronounced a national hero, a toxicology report comes to light with blood alcohol counts that reveal that Whip was flying under a 0.24 blood alcohol concentration. This is no surprise, since we learn immediately from the first scene that Whip’s idea of perking up in the morning means rousing himself up with a line of cocaine and downing two shots of vodka. Then he lands the plane, drunk as a skunk, and hours later the toxicology results emerge. Up to this point, it seems that Zemeckis is trying to prepare us for a sort of courtroom drama. But then the airline kills the toxicology report with surprising ease, and Whip takes shelter in his old family farmhouse decorated with bourbon bottles, beer cans and cigarette stubs. It suddenly becomes a study on Whip’s alcoholism — or something deeper.
“I never really saw the movie as about alcoholism,” Zemeckis stops me. “I always saw Whip’s substance abuse to be a symptom of a bigger problem. He misused all these substances to get some relief from the real-world problem, which is his inability to be honest with himself.” With that said, Zemeckis pulls the rug from under his audience by taking us into deeper territory than a mere legal fight. We have this brilliant commercial airline pilot who turns into a dilapidated addict as he holes up at home with his whiskey flask and cocaine lines. The fact that he pulls off that miracle landing drunk and high reveals that Whip can no longer function without this escape. This is his life now, and his struggle to accept it becomes the main focal point of the film.
“That’s what I think makes it more accessible to general audiences.” Rather than the film being about someone struggling with a general addiction, it’s about Whip using alcohol and drugs for the sole purpose of escaping the tragic truth of his life. In essence, he’s alone, divorced and leading a shaky relationship with his only son. The plane crash merely serves as a tipping point for all of this emotional torment, forcing him to either accept or reject his problem, with consequences that extend far beyond his grasp.
Such a complex part requires a talented actor. Zemeckis does all the casting in his films, and when he read the script and learned that Denzel Washington was interested, he thought the Oscar winner was perfect. Oddly enough, Zemeckis didn’t know Washington prior to filming. “But I always knew,” Zemeckis says, “I think based on his (performances) in movies like ‘Training Day’ and ‘Malcolm X,’ that there was going to be no vanity involved in his performance and that he was just going to go for it.” Vanity-free Washington’s performance truly is. He’s naked and vulnerable in a way that even some of his career-defining roles have never really allowed him to be, at least to the degree that Whip requires.
To illuminate the actor’s brilliance, Zemeckis reveals little details of his performance that mark him as a subtle performer. It was Washington’s decision, Zemeckis explains, to use his injury after the crash as a sympathy act, like when he goes to the hospital to see his co-pilot, Evans. He walks into the hospital without using his cane but then uses it, even limps, when entering Evans’ room. Everything is in the details.
Although the movie features an incredible performance by Washington that will surely attract viewers, there’s an ever deeper emotional layer to the film that will surely resonate with crowds. The fact that it’s about a middle-age pilot struggling with his demons shouldn’t deter younger crowds from seeing this. “Anyone who survives to the age of sixteen has got some emotional miles on them,” Zemeckis says at the end of the interview. “I don’t think you need to have some calendar miles; if you have some emotional miles on you, then you’ll be able to understand what this movie’s about and relate to it.”
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