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Sully

A while back, Clint Eastwood made a little movie called American Sniper. To say that it was a highly polarizing movie would be an understatement. A lot of viewers and critics (myself included) saw the film as little more than hawkish conservative propaganda made to glorify our ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It certainly didn’t help that Eastwood has been embarrassing himself with his political antics for some time now, from his baffling presentation at the 2012 Republican National Convention to the time he called me and everyone else my age “the pussy generation” because we’re just too damned sensitive and politically correct.

But getting back to American Sniper, it’s entirely possible that the movie might have more nuance than so many originally thought. Given the title character’s constant struggles with civilian life, his ongoing PTSD, and his prolonged dilemmas about whom should be taken out as a serious threat, it’s entirely possible that the film might have actually been intended as an anti-war story about the psychological toll on soldiers. If so, perhaps the point might have been made a bit clearer if Eastwood was somehow able to explore those issues in a way that wasn’t so politically divisive.

…Oh hai, Sully.

Think back to January of 2009. Goldman Sachs and Bear Stearns had just crashed our economy with their short-sighted incompetence and greed. Racism and bitterness lingered all throughout the country after an ugly and hateful presidential campaign resulted in the election of President Barack Obama. The shadow of 9/11 still loomed large (especially in New York) given that Liberty Tower was still under construction at the old Ground Zero and Osama bin Laden was still at large after eight years of war in the Middle East.

Desperate for anything to give us comfort and joy in the face of all this uncertainty and chaos, we could only turn to the cinematic arrivals of Taken and Paul Blart: Mall Cop, both of which would improbably become box office smash hits and franchise pilots. These were dark times indeed.

Just when we most badly needed a hero, there came Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and his copilot, First Officer Jeffrey Skiles (here respectively immortalized by Tom Hanks and Aaron Eckhart). On January 14th of 2009, Sullenberger and Skiles were piloting US Airways Flight 1549 out of LaGuardia Airport when their plane collided with a flock of birds. Both engines were destroyed, every airport was too far away, and the plane — with 155 souls on board — was falling onto one of the most heavily populated areas in the world. With no other options, Sully landed the plane on the Hudson River. And every last person on board that plane made it out alive.

While the film does portray that event multiple times from several different perspectives, that’s not how the movie starts. No, our story actually begins shortly after the crash water landing. It begins when Sully is being hailed as a bona fide hero, as the media follows him everywhere and total strangers are tripping over themselves to thank him and congratulate him. But this has a serious side effect.

See, Sully has been going through some serious PTSD as a direct result of what happened. He keeps flashing back to that moment when he was flying a plane gone out of control, with no idea of what to do or whether he and everyone else on board was going to die. Naturally, it makes things a whole metric fuckton worse that everyone keeps talking about that day, and asking him to talk about that day, thereby forcing him to think back to that day and relive the whole thing over again.

The other big drawback to constantly recounting the most terrifying day of Sully’s life is that he’s left thinking about every last detail of what happened before, during, and after. He’s constantly wondering if there’s anything else he could’ve done or anything he missed. Was there a safer option this whole time, or did he endanger the plane and everybody on it for no reason?

With all of that said, hindsight is 20/20. Of course it’s easier to go over what might have been done differently when the heat of the moment is past, especially when the moment in question was a completely unpredictable catastrophe that has literally never been imagined by anyone ever. Moreover, it’s an unshakeable fact that everything did eventually turn out okay and everyone got out alive, which is really the best outcome anyone could’ve asked for. That said, it’s just as unshakeable that people very easily could have died, and it really is nothing short of a miracle that the best case scenario actually happened.

To recap, we’ve got PTSD and the constant stress of reliving the worst day of anyone’s life. We’ve got survivor’s guilt for living through something that easily could have killed our protagonist and quite a few others. We’ve got the overwhelming stress of being hailed as a hero for the greatest catastrophe anyone could ever hope to live through. We’ve got people who know nothing about airplanes or aviation, who weren’t anywhere near the plane, talking with Sully about the event and jesting at scars that never felt a wound.

The parallels to war veterans should be obvious. Yet it’s all very tastefully done, and often quite cleverly done. It certainly helps that while Sully may be the protagonist and the media darling, the filmmakers cast a much wider spotlight.

As an example, the film makes it perfectly clear that Skiles is going through a lot of the same psychological trouble that Sully is, which helps develop the character and gives Eckhart some solid material to chew on. It also gives Sully a convenient sounding board to voice his own inner problems while reinforcing the notion that Sully didn’t act alone in this. Which brings me to what is quite possibly the smartest thing this movie did.

The US Airways Flight 1549 disaster played out over 208 seconds, and we see those same 208 seconds play out over and over again. Without even counting all the “what-if” scenarios in which tons of people die fiery deaths onscreen, we see the actual (well, dramatized, but you get what I mean) water landing play out repeatedly from different angles. Any other movie would try to cram everything into a single scene, thereby stretching out the whole incident into pretty much the entire running time. But this film doesn’t, and for a reason that’s frankly genius.

With each iteration of the water landing, the film keeps its focus on a different aspect of what happened. Which means that we get to spend that much more time in the flight control tower at LaGuardia. And then we see the same events unfold from the perspective of the first responders, the Coast Guard, FDNY, NYPD, the American Red Cross, and so on. We see it again from the perspective of the flight attendants who were there with the passengers in the cabin. And with every iteration, the extra time and attention serves to develop these characters, making it clear that they were simply ordinary people going about their day when they were suddenly called upon to be part of an extraordinary effort at saving lives.

Under Eastwood’s direction, the emergency workers of New York are portrayed as real-life heroes. The wreckage of Flight 1549 becomes a rallying point for the best people and the finest virtues of New York, showing how people from all over the city (and by extension, people of any community) can come together to help each other out of the worst scenarios. Again, it serves as an elegant and implicit commentary on a timely and emotionally charged subject — namely, 9/11 — but without the heavy political baggage.

Then we have the passengers themselves. During one iteration of the flight, the filmmakers spend a tremendous amount of care and effort into showing us some of the people on that flight. We see them going about their lives and settling into their typical airplane ride routines. We see the gradual onset of terror as it suddenly dawns on them that the one statistically improbable thing that everyone prays will never happen on a plane actually begins to happen. Then we see the hysteria, the courage, and the euphoria of going through something so incredibly dangerous and living to tell the tale. The attention to detail is so staggering that the filmmakers even remember how incredibly cold it must have been on a New York river in the middle of freaking January.

I really can’t say enough about the bit players or how much character development they cram into so little screentime. Hell, the whole city of New York is made into one of the most vibrant characters. Sure, the headliners are amazing, but you already knew that. Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, and Laura Linney are all seasoned talents playing characters so firmly entrenched in their respective wheelhouses that it’s borderline impossible to think of anyone else in these roles.

The visuals and sound design are neatly impressive as a whole. The movie is one of the rare few so far shot entirely in IMAX and while I’m sure the film would be perfectly fine on a regular screen, the IMAX presentation brings a lot of punch. Granted, there is a brief bit of shaky-cam early on and a few close-up shots taking up the entire ginormous screen, but those moments are short and nicely handled.

But with all of this said, the movie does have one drawback. One major, recurring, godawful drawback. I’m of course referring to the overarching storyline in which Sully and Skiles have to participate in an investigation as to why the event happened and whether it could have been prevented. The investigation is led by three bureaucrats (played by Mike O’Malley, Jamey Sheridan, and Anna Gunn) who seem hellbent on taking the flimsiest excuse to pin the whole disaster on Sully and his copilot.

Where do I even start?

First, this witch hunt flies in the face of everything we know about Sully, both in the film and in real life. We know that he saved all those people, we know everybody hailed Sully as a hero at the time, and we know that he’s recognized as a hero now. From the contrived start to the flimsy middle to the wet fart of a finish, this whole storyline is pathetically thin and void of any suspense.

Secondly, we don’t need a telegraphed victory against a few pompous assholes, and we don’t need some big “Oscar speech” moment to glorify Sully. He saved 155 people and lived to tell about it. What more does anyone need?

Thirdly, there was absolutely no reason why the investigators had to be such over-the-top bullies. If they had been rational and well-intentioned professionals, made to look like prosecutorial windbags by Sully’s paranoia and mental trauma, that might have actually been compelling and dramatic. But no, we just get these three idiots scowling into the camera. Useless.

FOURTHLY, it’s not like this film needed any more drama than it already had. We’ve already got a plane that went down with 155 souls on board, and one wrong move could potentially mean that they’re all dead along with God knows how many other people in New York City. On top of that, we’ve got Sully’s inner struggle as he tries to deal with his sudden fame and his PTSD flashbacks of what happened. You think that’s not enough drama to power an entire film? You think this is a story that really needed a villain? Bullshit.

FIFTHLY, this whole storyline was clearly made to drive home how ridiculous it is that those with any power get to sit in total safety, lording over those who really are suffering on the front lines with absolutely zero knowledge of what it’s really like in the thick of things. There’s also a clear point made against computer simulations and predictive algorithms, in praise of the human factor. All of these ideas are presented in ways that are blunt, braindead, and preachy. It stands in stark and garish contrast to all the beautifully nuanced and authentic portrayals of the event, its aftermath, and how it affected everyone involved.

This brings me to the sixth point: IT’S BULLSHIT!!! The real-life NTSB investigators of the Hudson River landing have already come out publicly, stating that their unsympathetic portrayal couldn’t be further from the truth, citing the actual NTSB record as proof. Even the real-life Captain Sullenberger himself requested that the investigators’ names be changed, as they bore so little resemblance to the real thing. But even without that knowledge, absolutely EVERYTHING about this storyline smelled of horseshit. It’s presented in a manner that’s ham-fisted and tin-eared, reeking of hack filmmakers sticking cliched storytelling and and obnoxious preaching where they don’t belong. And it’s all the more annoying precisely because as the rest of the film proves, these are NOT hack filmmakers.

Sully at once represents Clint Eastwood at his best and his worst. Eastwood is incredible at casting his movies and coaxing great performances from his actors. He’s aces at portraying the human element, focusing on the seemingly insignificant bit players in a way that’s compelling and poignant while also conveying a sense of scale. Moreover, he’s got a lot of things to say about our men and women in uniform, providing commentary on their struggles that’s not only timely but imperative. It’s just such a damn shame that all of Eastwood’s skill with nuanced and relateable characters goes right out the fucking window when he brings his libertarian streak into where it doesn’t belong. It’s not that I hate him for being a libertarian — that’s his own right. It’s that he’s so damn stupid and self-righteous about it, cutting off character and story at the knees for the sake of pontificating, that there’s no way I can agree with him.

Don’t get me wrong, Sully is a good movie and well worth seeing. There are some great performances, it’s a wonderful love letter to New York and its finest, and there are moments so emotionally raw that you’re guaranteed to come away with a new appreciation for what happened and those who lived through it. Just keep in mind that everything about that godawful NTSB storyline needs to be taken with a barrel of salt.

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