Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Review: "Sully" Loses Momentum When it Leaves the Plane

Scene from Sully
Director Clint Eastwood has been known for making miserable films for quite some time. He has won two Best Picture awards for Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby: both of which resonate around death. Even his highly controversial American Sniper takes a solemn look at P.T.S.D. while suggesting the addiction that war brings. This is why it seems almost bizarre that he would choose to tackle something like Sully: a film where nobody dies, and the ending can be described as happy. It's a tale of America overcoming a major conflict, starring Tom Hanks in a role that he could play in his sleep: the stern yet emotionally wrought Sully Sullenberger. While the film centers around the "Miracle on the Hudson" incident from 2009, it is Eastwood's attempt to make a unifying message of hope in time of crisis. The results, which are thoroughly upbeat, are messy but effective.

There is a sense that Eastwood's biggest influence came from Rashomon: a film based around differing perspectives of the same event. While Sully is more about putting one man on trial, it feels like there's two opposing opinions: Sully's, and the board that believes that he's a negligent fool who could've flown the plane back to the airport. The countless simulations that familiarize the audience with the plane feels like a technological update that suggests that humans are imperfect, with memories that are likely to deter important pieces of information. There's no denying that Sully is disturbed to the core about the incident - going so far as to imagine the other scenarios in which the plane crashed into buildings - and simply wants to put it behind him.

While the perspective of the event itself is an issue of contemplation, it is likely the definition of "Hero" that gets the Rashomon hero. Is Sully a hero because he landed a plane safely without seriously injuring any of the 155 passengers; or is he reckless for not reacting in a more conventional manner? The answer isn't fully revealed until the closing act, though the answer is clear. People love Sully. They name drinks after him and get him interviewed by David Letterman. If he isn't a hero, he is one of the luckiest men alive for committing an unprecedented act of bravery. The film consistently acknowledges that everyone will judge him for those 208 seconds. As an audience, we're alongside the board trying to get a clear answer not only to why he did it, but if it was the right move.

In typical fashion, the film's highlight is the centerpiece that's been advertised in the commercials. Everyone wants to see how Eastwood will direct those 208 seconds of cinema and turn it into something riveting while also being ripped from the headlines. It is in those moments that the film is most alive, feeling like a technical achievement with each detail clinically stitched together as the plane crashes and the passengers are rescued. The film creates the sense that it was a miracle. It could've easily been solely about the day in question and been a very impressive film. Instead, it is surrounded by the Rashomon-style analysis of Sully's actions where computers are dismissing his act. If nothing else, Eastwood's real foe is technology; which is constantly maligned for its inaccuracy in relating to human error.

In some ways, Sully feels like a film that intentionally opened on the weekend of the 15th anniversary of the World Trade Center Attacks. The film opens with a nightmare of a plane flying too low, into a tower. It is a recurring image as Sully imagines what could've happened. Along with closing titles suggesting America's unification in times of crisis, the event goes from being a freak accident to a suggestion that disaster doesn't always signify death. It only means that if society doesn't work together to overcome their conflict. It's in part why the real life Sullenberger appeared over the closing credits with the survivors, talking about how that day bonded them for good. Sully isn't just the story of Sully. It's also a story about how society works together to survive.

The issue isn't that Eastwood has lofty goals. It's actually smart to see him go in an optimistic direction. The issue is that the story feels incomplete at a little over 90 minutes. Beyond the riveting centerpiece moment, the film feels disjointed while doing its best to build to the moment that audiences paid to see. The film starts after the crash, choosing to paint the struggles as something that eats at Sully. This is fine, but the transitions are in some ways confusing, ineffective, and redundant. Since Sully's visual appearance changes so little and the settings are rarely distinguishable, the past and present are so easy to lump together. It works through the kinks, but it also feels like a compensation mechanism by a certain point. The lack of depth of additional characters beyond his co-pilot (Aaron Eckhart) definitely undermines the American unification theme. Also, the lack of a rewarding conclusion - of which the movie ends abruptly and without satisfaction - makes it more difficult to warrant this film's existence.

Hanks is one of Hollywood's most unappreciated legends from a critical standpoint. He has not received an Oscar nomination since Cast Away in 2001. Since then, he has done phenomenal work in films like Catch Me If You Can, Captain Phillips, and last year's Bridge of Spies. The issue is that he can play iconic historical figures in his sleep and make any film work. Sully is a good example of him being on cruise control. He's charming and does well with the source material, but he lacks a moment as significant as any of the aforementioned films. At best, his calmness during the plane crash sequence is on par with Gregory Peck's stillness and authoritarian style. Otherwise, he doesn't get much to do besides sulk.

Sully isn't an awful movie. It's actually very well made and has more on its plate than a conventional piece like this should. Considering how vibrant and divisive American Sniper was, it's strange to see Eastwood tell a story about unification with such clairvoyance. It may pale in comparison to the other film inspired by Sullenberger (2012's Flight), but the fact that this is a true story with a truly impressive achievement at the center, some things are forgivable about the film and its depiction of heroism. The only issue is that everything else about it seems like lesser works of everyone involved, making this feel like a footnote in the annals of Hanks and Eastwood's careers. It isn't a terrible movie, but it's not one sure to be held as the creators' definitive achievements either. It's merely just good.

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