I recently did an interview for The Forest Scout with Mr. Lubliner, one of our school’s many noteworthy English teachers, concerning his Film class. In it, we touched upon a variety of things (judging from the cluster of nearly illegible notes I was barely able to scribble down between questions). One string of thought, I can remember for sure, was along Hollywood-ization and the marketing of the modern movie. He said something about it that sounded particularly right to me, with an expertly placed example to back it up: “It wasn’t a mistake that they called it Sully.”
Having seen said film, I can call the namesake much less than a mistake; I’m not sure if you could possibly call the movie anything else. By now, we know the real pilot, officially Captain Charles Sullenberger, as a chum, an experienced but flexible thinker who did a human thing that luckily turned out to be the right thing. A superstar of a fellow he is, for as anyone who watches CNN will know, a thing more intriguing than an election will earn itself a one-hour news story and a special or two (Sully relies heavily on clips of live coverage and on-scene reporters in its script). If that picks up, movie agents will try their luck. Or, in the case of director Clint Eastwood, it’ll be snatched up as the story (“untold,” for the posters) of the humble, dad-figure hero who did his job and made history on cinematic terms (a.k.a. that post-script “where are they now”).
The main contradiction of many in this project: the emphasis of the “hero” part. Sully rarely leads you to believe that you are looking at “Sully,” as he is affectionately named, the Everyman — more like “Sully” the infallible. Yes, the character is played in the flesh, albeit by the increasingly screen-dominant Tom Hanks. The film, however, plays it safe for the most part. The captain’s miraculous landing in the Hudson River is told confidently, as it should be. The contrived conflict afterwards (the script by Todd Komarnicki rearranges some events out of chronological order) speaks in a relatively non-challenging tone. It’s an external problem rather than an internal one, an investigation to determine whether Sully could have successfully landed the plane back at LaGuardia and charge him for an unnecessary emergency procedure; even then, the movie makes it clear that the bulk of the media pack is on Team Sully, along with its public following, and that the opposition will have no choice but to follow. Flashbacks of the water landing serve as punctuations to the rather repetitive narrative. Perhaps they mean to paint a clearer image of those 208 seconds. For me, it feels as though they are more interested with how “208 seconds” rolls off the tongue.
A lot of people liked Eastwood’s American Sniper from 2014. I did not. It was just dull, and I found it to be uneven in its straightforwardly patriotic depiction of the war in Iraq. There’s not as much political influence to Sully, and while it manages to step in line with the most accepted notions of its topic, it still lacks the instantaneous humanity of Eastwood’s previous directorial works like Invictus or Hereafter, pieces where he operated on a subtle yet multifaceted spectrum. Those two felt like pools of emotion; Sully feels like a narrow funnel, and leaving the theater, I’m ready to say that… I still think Sully did a good job landing that plane?
The film begins with an upsetting (and out of place) shot of a plane careening into the wall of an office building, only to reveal that it’s being played, like trauma, in the mind of Sully (Hanks), generated after the incident. The CGI here comes with mixed results. Are Sully’s vivid nightmares of potential destruction a result of the self-inflicted pressure he faces, or are they being used as a plot device to exploit our fear of the imagery and discredit the alternative action Sully could have taken in order to place our protagonist in the right? There are blunt villains in this film, portrayed by the National Transportation Safety Board in the not-so-best light. The movie has only them to prove Sully’s innocence to; we are far beyond being convinced, for better or for worse.
Hanks is a bittersweet addition. He’s delivered the modest performances that human subjects need, but then again… he’s become the Tom Hanks. Aaron Eckhart, who I like, plays the co-pilot, Jeff Skiles. He might as well be only a face, one that wears an even less forgivable mustache than Hanks’. And Sully’s wife, played by Laura Linney, is kept to mere over-the-phone conversations. It isn’t until the last scene, the last minute, that the script bothers to write in a rallying speech commending the assistance of the Red Cross and the city commission during the evacuation. It feels a little late to be noting the teamwork when we’re all staring at Hanks.
The last flying movie that caught my attention was Robert Zemeckis’ Flight from 2012, another story about an airline commute gone awry. That one also contained a crash sequence, one that was more dreadful and scary than the confines of reality could provide. While you could attribute its success (and, in my opinion, its superiority) to Denzel Washington’s performance, Flight was much more visceral in its portrayal of the pilot in context. The troubled alcoholic, fictional, would eventually spiral into his downfall, regardless of the fate of that one cloudy morning departure, regardless of who tried to help him through his addictions. There was such dangerous spontaneity beneath his cool, solely because we met him as a pilot, but we left him as a leaf turned and turned over again.
Whip Whitaker and Sullenberger are two different characters, but as much as we can relate to “Sully” the person, we still view his personality through the event he’s tied to, a text rather than a subtext. The film feels like the news story, or the special, or even the preview; there’s nothing in there that we don’t already.
Block Rating: ✭✭ 1/2