11/24/2012 02:47 pm ET Updated Jan 24, 2013

Flight Director Robert Zemeckis Flies

On the face of it, Flight is your standard redemption story. Taking you aboard a plane falling apart in heavy winds, Flight is not what it seems. Audiences may be expecting Airplane! without the laughs, or a claustrophobic bumpy drama aboard a doomed vehicle. The film is about character, extending beyond the lead to nuanced supporting roles.

The story of a flawed man enabled by the fact that he rarely loses control, Flight follows pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington), seen drinking heavily before and during this disaster. Fueled by a variety of substances, he maintains his demeanor, landing the plane with less damage than you would imagine. He is a hero, but as a husband, father, lover, he's the proverbial eh, plane wreck. That a hotel mini-bar can be scarier than a plane flailing in midair is a measure of this classic cautionary tale, one of the best pictures as award season approaches. Expect too a nod to John Gatins for his original screenplay.

Both were on hand for lunch at Circo last week: Robert Zemeckis told diners he flies. Literally. And then there was another disclosure: he worked with Peggy Siegal as publicist on his first feature, I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978).

While John Gatins' screenplay is not autobiographical, truth be told, he said, he went sober at 25. Now 44, he had been thinking about abuse as a theme, and a pilot as a character. Then he was on a plane with one in uniform who sat beside him talking non-stop about his life. Gatins remembers wishing he would stop talking, and then the situation took hold; what if, he thought, and the character of Whip Whitaker evolved.

Gatins seemed amused that everybody responds so well to John Goodman as Harling Mays, the drug dealer who makes house calls. Some will be reminded of people just like him from back in the day, a nostalgia trip to Memory Lane; he's a loveable eccentric and as Goodman plays him, simply hilarious. Gatins said people regard Mays as the only person in the film who loves Whip. Everyone else seems dependent in some way, even the young woman, Nicole (Kelly Reilly), an addict who comes to live with him in his father's remote house.

While Goodman may be an obvious choice for Best Supporting Actor, for this role or his turn in Argo, another actor, James Badge Dale as "gaunt young man," is equally noteworthy in a small role. With a number of movies coming out this summer, $200 million blockbusters with CGI, Lone Ranger, Iron Man 3, and World War Z, he worked hard to land this role, insisting on reading for it, even when they wanted him for a different part. Playing a cancer patient, with Whip and Nicole sneaking out for a smoke in a hospital stairwell, was personally resonant. He connected with it in the script as he had seen his mother, actress, singer and dancer Anita Morris, die of cancer. Just reading for the part was enough, he said. "Big movies are great, but I was happy just to be three characters in a tight room."

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