Sunday, October 02, 2016

"Sully": review

[WARNING: spoilers, but only if you don't remember the actual event.]

The elevator pitch for "Sully," directed by Clint Eastwood, must have been something like, "Let's remake 'Apollo 13' with the same star, but more reined-in this time." That's essentially what "Sully" is: a restrained, stately version of "Apollo 13." In Ron Howard's true-life space adventure, three astronauts led by Tom Hanks must abort their moon mission after an on-board explosion and fly safely back to Earth. In "Sully," two pilots led by Tom Hanks must turn their plane around after a bird strike and fly safely back to New York's LaGuardia Airport. The difference, of course, is that the Apollo 13 mission took several days, whereas Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger (Hanks) encountered the bird strike and resolved the crisis within 208 seconds. The ensuing water-rescue operation took under 25 minutes—something we learn during the film's epilogue.

The story operates on several levels, but one major point that the movie drives home—and again, this is very much like "Apollo 13"—is the teamwork that allowed the crisis to play out as smoothly as it did. From the pilots to the cabin crew to the air-traffic controllers and the New York Port Authority, everyone—including the passengers, who could have gone nuts and ended up hurting each other—did what they were supposed to do with crisp efficiency.

The crisis itself was a paradox in terms of intensity: a dramatically, even miraculously, successful water landing, but with no deaths and only one or two not-quite-major injuries. If journalism feeds on blood, this was a rather bloodless event, and given how recent the event was—it happened in early January, 2009—it's still fresh in the public's collective memory. Clint Eastwood, in making this film, thus had the unenviable task of telling a bloodless story about a well-known event that could have been far more dramatic than it had been.

So Eastwood focuses on the could-have-beens. "Sully" does, ultimately, give us every moment of the crisis from the takeoff to the bird strike to the water landing (Sullenberger, in the film, is adamant that this wasn't a crash, per se, but a controlled water landing), but these moments are spliced and rearranged into a deliberately jumbled, nonlinear narrative that mixes visuals of the actual touchdown, moments from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation, scenes from Sullenberger's family life and his interactions with copilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart, sporting a comically huge mustache), flashbacks from the past, and harrowing depictions of Sully's nightmares. Those nightmares, plus the broadcasts of post-crash simulation runs, are the could-have-beens in question, and it's these counterfactuals that dominate the film: did Sully do the right thing by landing US Air Flight 1549 in the Hudson River? Could he have made it to a nearby airport (LaGuardia in New York or Teterboro in New Jersey), thus saving millions of dollars in damage to the plane?

If you remember the incident, you'll know that that event and its aftermath panned out in Sully's favor, and Eastwood does little to create suspense. I don't know the extent to which the investigation of the water landing has been sexed up for dramatic purposes. Authorities have, since the movie's release, expressed displeasure at being portrayed in a bad light, but my own view is that the movie didn't exaggerate the characters in order to create clear villains. The near-disaster was itself already a sufficient source of drama and conflict, and as Sully says at one point, the authorities are merely doing their jobs in investigating every angle.

Tom Hanks does yeoman's work as the stolid Sullenberger. Aaron Eckhart, with his ridiculous mustache, gets most of the laugh lines. Laura Linney, as Sully's wife Lorraine, doesn't have much to do except fret over the phone, but Linney keeps her character from tipping over into caricature. Anna Gunn—who played Walter White's long-suffering wife Skylar in "Breaking Bad" (reviewed here)—has a minor role as one of the NTSB investigators, but she infuses her role with a sort of doe-eyed gravitas. Every actor and actress hits his or her marks.

Clint Eastwood is a talented director, but his style is understated and unpretentious. "Sully" moves along at a slow, casual, Eastwoodian jog, which means that, despite the fact that this is a film about the most hair-raising 208 seconds in history, the story's tone is as calm and collected as the atmosphere inside a Zen meditation hall. "Sully" won't leave you breathless; it won't leave you in tears; it won't have you excitedly victory-punching the air. It will, however, leave you with much to think about: how we second-guess ourselves after a crisis, the way the American news media can downplay or play up a story, the fact that heroism in the age of corporations and litigation cannot be allowed to shine, but must instead be dragged through ass-covering investigations. The movie ends, per the real-life incident, on a grimly victorious note, and that's about as intense as things get.

Would I recommend "Sully"? Yes, I would. The Korean audience that I sat with—it was a packed house last night—seemed to appreciate the movie and its message, even laughing during the wryly funny moments and "ahh"-ing when Sully gets his flight-simulator vindication. "Sully" is definitely worth getting on board for.


Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

The film is one Koreans need to see. They'll get to watch people doing what people should do in an emergency. Maybe they'll even stop wondering where President Park was for five or six hours that day of the Sewol sinking and instead look at their own failure to be prepared, their pattern of waiting passively to be rescued, and their tendency to blame hidden forces higher up for 'planning'such accidents.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

Kevin Kim said...

Very good points, all. Thanks, Jeff.

Charles said...

Wrote a draft of my "review" last night but had to put it aside because I was getting too upset--you'll see what I mean. The film itself we really enjoyed (and I agree with much of what you wrote), it was just some things that it dredged up in our minds (see Jeff's comments above for a hint) that came out while I was writing the review.

Anyway, I hope to get back to it tonight and finish it up. I did want to comment that the flight lasted 208 seconds, though, not 280.

Kevin Kim said...

Lysdexia of the memory. Corrected. Thanks.