Monday, September 12, 2016

In Theaters: SULLY (2016)

(US - 2016)

Directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Todd Komarnicki. Cast: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney, Mike O'Malley, Jamey Sheridan, Anna Gunn, Chris Bauer, Holt McCallany, Patch Darragh, Ann Cusack, Jane Gabbert, Molly Hagan, Michael Rapaport, Jeff Kober, Jerry Ferrara, Sam Huntington, Christopher Curry, Max Adler, Autumn Reeser, Jeffrey Nordling, Valerie Mahaffey, Delphi Harrington. (PG-13, 96 mins)

It may seem like a stretch to make a feature film out of a six-minute incident and with SULLY, that proves to be the case. In a sense, it's an unusual project for Clint Eastwood who, at 86, is showing no signs of slowing down, working at a Woody Allen pace that renders a lot of his films a blur (quick: when's the last time you thought of JERSEY BOYS, HEREAFTER, or CHANGELING?).  At just 96 minutes, SULLY is the shortest film he's ever directed, when one valid criticism that's been leveled at him over the years is his inability to keep a movie under two hours. But even 96 minutes seems too long for SULLY, which recreates the January 15, 2009 "Miracle on the Hudson" landing of US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River no less than three times over the course of the film, along with a drawn-out climax that consists of characters at a National Transportation Safety Board hearing watching multiple real-time computer simulations. There's maybe a 70-minute movie here, but feature films don't run 70 minutes anymore. The short length aside, SULLY is very much a Clint Eastwood movie, with Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger (played here by Tom Hanks) a classic Eastwood hero: a professional, morally upstanding man who's spent his entire life doing his job and doing the right thing. Sully is respected by his colleagues, loved by his family, a man who follows his gut instincts and gets the job done. He's got problems like everyone else--in his case, a money pit property that's been long vacant and causing some significant financial worry--but his performance on the job is never less than stellar. All of that comes into question in SULLY when, just after takeoff on a flight with 155 people onboard, a bird strike causes both engines to burn out and fail. Quick-thinking Sully and co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) run through the protocol and attempt to turn around to land at LaGuardia or at Teterboro in New Jersey. Unable to make it without the risk of a crash-landing in the city, Sully lands the plane on the frigid Hudson, and though some passengers were injured and flight attendant Doreen Welsh (Molly Hagan) suffered a severe laceration on her leg, everyone survived and Sully was hailed as an American hero.

It's a feelgood story for the ages, but Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki (PERFECT STRANGER) need a dramatic element. Sure, there's Sully's post-landing second-guessing of his decisions and a certain degree of PTSD suffered by the two pilots, but that's not enough. Shot entirely with IMAX cameras, SULLY does a convincing job of putting the audience right there with Sully and Skiles in a real-time recreation of the incident. Eastwood has a knack for getting into the nuts-and-bolts minutiae of a job down cold, whether it's here with the flight attendants ("BRACE! BRACE! BRACE! HEADS DOWN! STAY DOWN!") and the air traffic controllers or with the way he showed prison employees going about their preparation for an execution in 1999's TRUE CRIME. With the camera capturing every worried look on the faces of Sully and Skiles and with the skillful, precision-timed editing of Blu Murray, the depiction of the bird strike and the subsequent water landing is unquestionably the high point of SULLY. Outside of the plane, Eastwood wisely lets the film rest on the shoulders of Hanks, who continues to cement his status as the Jimmy Stewart "everyman" of his generation. The actor gets fine support by an understated Eckhart, whose Skiles is such a likable character (his film-ending closing line brings down the house) that he almost manages to steal the movie from Hanks.

But as with other Eastwood biographical works, SULLY plays a little too fast and loose with the facts. It isn't quite the borderline hagiography of Chris Kyle and Frankie Valli that were AMERICAN SNIPER and JERSEY BOYS, respectively, nor is it filled with the hokey simplicity of INVICTUS, probably his worst film as a director. The "Miracle on the Hudson" is a story where the closest thing to a villain is a flock of birds that were flying in the wrong place at the wrong time. To counter that, Eastwood and Komarnicki turn the NTSB investigators into the de facto bad guys, going through the list of standard protocol questions but with a tone that starts out incredulous and rapidly escalates to accusatory and prosecutorial. All of the NTSB computer simulations re-enacted by experienced pilots indicate Sully could've made it to LaGuardia. Sully and Skiles both disagree, but Sully's career and pension are on the line if he's wrong, with the head of the inquiry, Charles Porter (Mike O'Malley), glaring at Sully with a seething contempt that borders on snarling hostility by the end. The names of the NTSB investigators were changed for the movie (at Sullenberger's request, according to Hanks, as Sully himself felt that the script's depiction of them was inaccurate). O'Malley's "Charles Porter" doesn't exist, but Robert Benzon, the actual head of the investigation, has spoken out against the film's presentation of the NTSB officials as hatchet men bent on taking Sully down. The investigation was cordial and without such incident, never as inflammatory and antagonistic as SULLY suggests, but it fits into Eastwood's recurring motif of working men in the field and on the frontlines always suffering at the hands of bureaucrats, desk jockeys, and pencil pushers, and ever-hobbled by an over-reliance on technology when the old ways are still the best.

This idea has gone back to the police commissioner and the mayor never just letting Dirty Harry do his job and blow away some scumbags or how the young brainiacs at NASA need the old guys to bail them out in 2000's SPACE COWBOYS. This was evidenced in Eastwood's last film to date as an actor, 2012's TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE, where he was in his now-standard, post-GRAN TORINO "Get off my lawn!" mode as a cranky old baseball scout who has no use for "those damn computers" and young punk scouts who only look at numbers and don't feel the game in their hearts ("Anybody that uses computers doesn't know a damn thing about this game," he growls). Eastwood heroes have no use for that shit--they go with their guts and their instincts. Sully did that on January 15, 2009, but he also wasn't subsequently targeted by the NTSB. Fact-based films have always taken dramatic liberties. Even Paul Greengrass' CAPTAIN PHILLIPS, a film whose closing minutes feature arguably the finest acting Hanks has ever done, had to make you care about a guy who, by most accounts, was kind of an asshole and wasn't really well-liked by his peers. Things have to be depicted in different ways for dramatic purposes, but with SULLY, the shoehorning-in of the NTSB out to "get" Sully only serves to demonstrate just how little material is here for a feature-length film. SULLY can't even find anything for three-time Oscar-nominee Laura Linney to do as Mrs. Sully besides sit at home in her kitchen, sob into a phone and repeatedly ask "Is it almost over, Sully?"  To Eastwood's credit, he doesn't go full PATCH ADAMS and have all of the passengers walk into the inquiry and prompt the NTSB meanies to have change of heart and start slow-clapping until Sully gets a standing ovation from the entire room, but it doesn't seem out of the question, especially the borderline mic-drop of a way that Sully shuts down Porter (which never happened). Still, the entire room smiles and nods as if to say "You showed them, Sully!" The flight sequences and the excellent work by Hanks and Eckhart (and, briefly, Patch Darragh as Patrick Harten, the air traffic controller trying to talk Sully down to LaGuardia) make SULLY worthwhile viewing, but the rest suffers from forced and fabricated conflict that simply didn't exist.

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