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'Flight' director and star--Robert Zemeckis (left) and Denzel Washington--work on set.
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BY JAKE COYLE
AP Entertainment Writer
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," says 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 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, 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.
The crash sequence, a virtuoso set piece made with the digital artists from 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?" asks Zemeckis. "But the real spectacle, of course, is Denzel's performance."
It's one that many expect will land Washington his sixth Oscar nomination. (He's won for "Glory" and "Training Day.")
A UNIVERSAL THEME
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," says Washington, describing Whitaker. "He made a particular choice to numb the pain."