Robert Zemeckis’ new movie “Flight,” starring Denzel Washington as a somewhat Sully-like pilot closed the 48th Chicago Film Festival in style on Thursday, October 25, 2012. Zemeckis and wife Leslie came to town to accept the Founder’s Award in conjunction with the film, which opens wide on November 2, 2012.

In the action-packed mystery thriller, Denzel Washington stars as Whip Whitaker, a pilot who makes a miraculous crash landing of Flight 227 near Atlanta, Georgia, a plane bearing 102 passengers and crew.

The opening sequence is as exciting as the crash in “Castaway” but goes on much longer. It’s truly riveting. When the plane is down and Denzel (and the others) are being rescued from the wreckage, he is initially hailed as a hero. Co-star Bruce Greenwood as an old friend who represents the pilots’ union says, “Initial reports look like you saved a lot of lives.” Drug-dealer and hippie Harley Mays (John Goodman) says, “Sweet Jesus! What a stud that plot is! You will never pay for a drink again. You’re a rock star!”

The euphoric reaction to Whitaker’s calm command during the crisis quickly gives way to a variety of charges that could land him in prison if he doesn’t perform satisfactorily during the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) review of the crash. He must testify in a public setting before Ellen Block (Oscar-winner Melissa Leo). Whip’s answers at that time will mark his future for all time.

The movie has much discussion of God or a Divine Being. One of Zemeckis’ personal quotes on the International Movie Data Base gives us a bit of insight into why that might be: “I was raised a Catholic on the South Side of Chicago (Roseland), and I felt I had to undo a lot of serious damage. But as I was getting older (Zemeckis is now 61), I began coming off my absolutely young, arrogant, agnostic beliefs. I was thinking more about coming to terms with human spirituality.”

One character in the script says, “Once you realize all the random things in your life, you realize there is a God and you have no control over that. Death gives you perspective.” Later, the line is, “I believe that God landed that plane.” Don Cheadle, who plays Denzel’s lawyer, Hugh Lange, is working on getting an Act of God inserted as a potential cause of the accident, and Denzel says, “Whose God would do this?” as he surveys the wreckage of his plane, sitting in the field where he landed it. Denzel’s old flying buddy (Bruce Greenwood) refers to the successful landing as “a miracle.” Denzel’s co-pilot, post crash, says, “That crash was pre-ordained. There’s only one judge, and he’s got a plan for you. Nothing happens in the Kingdom of the Lord by mistake.” John Gatins wrote the script, which had been kicking around Hollywood for a while.

In the Q&A following the film, Zemeckis said, “The writer wrote the first pages in 1999. I had heard that Denzel Washington was interested in it. When I read it in February of 2011, I was astounded at how beautiful the script was. So I called up Denzel to see if he was really interested in doing it.”

Q: What was it like working with Denzel Washington? And was he really naked?

A: Sure. He’s the real deal. There’s no vanity. He shows up with the goods every single day. He is very focused, very intense.

Q: Are you a tough director?

A: Only if the actors aren’t doing what I want them to. The trick is mutual respect and collaboration. I don’t like to stir things up. I like it calm. There was a lot of preparation before shooting on the day that he would show up. Every choice he (Denzel) would make was perfect.

Q: Did you do a lot of takes?

A; I do as many as it takes to get what I want.

Q: You’ve done just about every kind of film: “Romancing the Stone” (1984); “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” (1988); “1941” (1979); “Back to the Future” (1985); “Forrest Gump” (1994); “Contact” (1997); “The Polar Express” (2004). Would you do a musical?

A: Sure.

Q: What was the inspiration for the film?

A: The screenplay. I read a lot. Most screenplays aren’t very good. I just couldn’t put this one down. I just loved how complex it was.

Q: How important was the casting?

A: The tightrope that we were all on was that he (Captain Whip Whitaker) was such a morally despicable character but very good at his job. He was very flawed. Denzel Washington brings this great screen presence. Denzel has charm and great gravitas as an actor. He had everything that was needed to pull the character off. (Zemeckis had just declined to select another actor who might have played the role, in answering a question from an audience member, saying, “Once the camera turns, I can’t imagine any other cast that can do the parts.”

Q: This isn’t a film about a plane crash.

A: It’s not.

Q: Did you have any problems with the product placements in the film?

A: We spread the brands all around. We had no problems.

Q: How much change was there from the beginning of shooting to the end of shooting?

A: I always saw him (the protagonist) as a flawed character that had to get in touch with his humanness. Through changes in location, sound mixing, etc. there were changes, but the big stuff is always there…the big story beats.

Q: John Goodman is remarkable in his supporting role as drug-dealer Harley Mays.

A: I was just praying that he’d be available.

Q: Is Denzel’s character a hero?

A: I think, in movie terms, he’s an anti-hero. He’s very good at some things, but he’s very flawed. I love the moral ambiguity. No one wears a black hat. No one wears a white hat. Everybody is ambiguous and I just thought that was fascinating.

A questioner from the audience asked if Zemeckis would ever do more hand-held camera footage. His answer was, “In fact, Don Burgess, my cinematographer and I decided there would be different levels of camera style for Denzel’s state in the film. When he is sober, the camera is locked off. When he has a buzz on, the camera shots are floaty. When he is completely drunk, the shots are hand-held. All film techniques should disappear and be there to serve the characters and the story.”

Q: How did the soundtrack come about?

A: The soundtrack grew out of John Goodman’s character, who likes to listen to the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter’ in his car. Whit (Denzel) didn’t have music in his life. The Rolling Stones just felt right.

Five years ago, “Entertainment Weekly” magazine named Robert (Bob) Zemeckis Number 18 on its list of “the smartest people in Hollywood.” From his very first start (with co-writer and collaborator Bob Gale) when they sold an episode of “Kolchak: The Night Stalker, Chopper (#1.15) in 1975, Zemeckis has gone on to give us some of the best films in recent memory.

Zemeckis has returned from experimentation with digital movie-making in “The Polar Express” 8 years ago (“I just love all types of movies, but I was especially interested in digital cinema. I was interested in films that could be done in digital.”) to a more traditional film that ranks right up there with the best of this year.