Saturday, November 19, 2016

Savvy and Sullied: Clint Eastwood's Sully

Aaron Eckhart and Tom Hanks in Sully

Clint Eastwood's intermittently gripping biographical drama, Sully, depicts Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger's emergency landing in January 2009 of a passenger jet on the Hudson River, which resulted in his becoming a national hero when all 155 passengers and crew survived (some with only minor injuries). Based on Sullenberger's autobiography Highest Duty (co-written with Jeffrey Zaslow), Eastwood's Sully is after more, however, than simply celebrating a hero who gambled on his years of experience to pull off a risky landing that could have been catastrophic had it failed. With Tom Hanks in the role of Sully, the picture attempts, often successfully, to contrast the growing acclaim in the media and public for a man who pulled off a miracle with the troubled mind of a veteran pilot who suffers the dread of someone who maybe just got lucky.

With a script by Todd Komarnicki, Sully is at its best when it gets into the area of how our conditioned responses are sometimes inappropriate when dealing with matters out of our control. For Sully, this flight is one of many, where his skills at flying are already a relaxed reflex that takes everything into consideration. But when a number of Canada geese unexpectedly fly directly into his two engines and disable them, he has to quickly move out of that comfort zone and into gambled probabilities. Not only does Sully have to work against time, but he and his copilot, Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), have to quickly agree on a course of action that doesn't come with any guarantees of success. For the public and the media cheering the ultimate outcome, there's an equally set response: people -- naturally eager to celebrate a happy story involving crashing airplanes in New York City eight years after 9/11 -- can't see that, despite the results, the man they're now acclaiming as Superman is currently struggling with his own Kryptonite. Sully is about how technology teaches us to acquiesce to its perfection in order to give us the security of control, but that in reality, that belief can be a trap when life suddenly intervenes and trips us up. Using IMAX cameras to depict various versions, from different viewpoints, of the take-off, the crash and rescue, cinematographer Tom Stern creates a widescreen map not unlike the landscape of a huge video game, but he wisely provides the kind of editing and movement that humanize the screen so that we feel the impending anxiety of losing control.

As Sully, Tom Hanks digs in with the kind of wiry trepidation he showed in Paul Greengrass's Captain Phillips,where you could feel echoes of hysteria bleeding through his pores. Unlike in Bridge of Spies, where Hanks played one note of decency – and doggedly – for the entire picture, his Sully is a concerto of conflicting emotions. What keeps Sully grounded in the aftermath is the relaxed and canny interplay he has with Eckhart's Skiles. Their jiving camaraderie has some of the same kick that Morgan Freeman and Clint Eastwood had as buddies in Unforgiven. (When Skiles informs Sully that he Googled him and discovered his safety consulting business website, he says, “I read all about your company. “Man, I thought I was a good bullshitter, but you take the cake!”) Eastwood's work with the actors is better than usual – from Patch Darragh's hugely empathetic portrait of New York air traffic controller Patrick Harten to Michael Rapaport's local bartender, who creates a drink honouring Sully, a shot of Grey Goose with a splash of water. In American Sniper, Eastwood stayed outside the inner dimensions of his protagonist, but in Sully he provides far more psychological subtext to both the main character and the story.

But where Eastwood shows less generosity and imagination is in the depiction of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which investigates the crash. In real life the investigation took over a year and a half to conclude, but here it is immediate and also unduly hostile to the pilots. It makes no sense to turn the three agents (played by Mike O'Malley, Anna Gunn and Jamey Sheridan) into villains vying to be The Grand Inquisitor, unless you wish – to use a bad pun – to sully your drama with melodrama so that you can reveal the NTSB to be bureaucratic automatons who need to find their human hearts (which, predictably, they do by the end). This descent into playground polemics also hurts the structure of the film. When Sully needs to touch the ground he calls his wife, Lorraine (Laura Linney), who gets to do nothing more than wring her hands and complain that if he loses his job their family, which includes two daughters, could fall into financial ruin, and to bemoan the fact that, in the aftermath of the crash, the investigation delays their reunion. (Over a year and a half, the real Sully had plenty of time to visit his family.) You don't get a clear picture of their marriage here in the same way you did when you saw the hotshot pilots in Philip Kaufman's The Right Stuff commune with their partners. Sully is either isolated and on the hot seat or walking into makeshift victory parades put on by New Yorkers and the media.

Some of the best scenes in Sully actually made me think of parts of The Right Stuff because that movie – sadly underrated at the time – also had an interest in issues of control, technology, the media and heroism. When Gus Grissom (Fred Ward), in a moment of terror, blows the hatch of his space capsule after he lands, he immediately blames the technology because he can't face the fact that, after all his training, he might suffer from human weakness. It may seem unusual that Clint Eastwood, who months before Trump's victory talked about America as a nation of "pussies," would plunge into a more complicated view of heroism. Sully has more savvy than anything he's done since Space Cowboys, yet his need to turn the NTSB into a collection of paper tigers points more directly to his libertarian Republicanism. This is a rather fascinating divided heart never seen in a Clint Eastwood movie before. Eastwood can bring out the troubled soul of a pilot who resists being turned into a machine, but he can't resist turning a regulating government body of troubled souls into machines. Even Dirty Harry would have a hard time resolving that conundrum.

Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams, 33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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