Friday, 16 September 2016

Movie Review: Sully (2016)



I declare Oscar season officially open. Grab your rifles and bloodhounds; we’re in for a rough few months ahead. This is Sully.


The plot: Captain Sullenberger (Tom Hanks), a commercial airline pilot, faces danger as a sudden influx of birds destroy both engines of his plane in mid-air. He does as best he can to both land the plane somewhat safely and make sure all the passengers are safe and accounted for, being regarded as a hero for his efforts. However, in the aftermath of the incident, appointees from the National Transportation Safety Board investigate the matter to see if Sully actually did the safest thing possible under the circumstances, a question Sully himself is beginning to doubt.

It’s a prestige picture with a suitably prestige cast, and yet for reasons I’ll get into, no singular actor ends up being all that important to the overall picture. Not that any of them are bad, mind you; far bloody from it. Hanks is essentially the go-to guy for prestige releases, and he imbues Sully with sizeable humility, not to mention doing remarkably well at showing how his given emotions are hitting him and how hard. Whether it’s reliving the events of the crash, the unfortunate possibilities of said crash, or the thud of relief once he learns how many of the passengers survived, Hanks passes with flying colours… ugh, I swear that pun wasn’t deliberate. Aaron Eckhart, brandishing a thick moustache to draw people’s attention away from his infamous chin, works well as the right-hand man and somewhat comic relief, delivering the more jocular lines very nicely. Laura Linney is one of those actors that seems incapable of giving a bad performance, even in otherwise wonky productions, and this is no exception as she takes what is ultimately a character by association and still manages to deliver on pathos, especially when the realization of what could have happened to her husband finally sinks in.

I specify the lack of importance when it comes to individual performances because, at its heart, this isn’t a film about individuals. Some readers are probably taking one look at the film’s title and gawking at me slightly, but hear me out. This film has a similar storyline to Robert Zemeckis’ Flight, but whereas that was more of a character piece about a drunkard who just happened to be at the right place at the right time, this focuses a lot more on the event itself. Considering how, also unlike Flight, this film’s story actually happened, this was a reasonable approach to take. A large chunk of the film is devoted to showing the event itself in all its various angles, and there’s quite a lot of them. The crew of the plane, the passengers, the onlookers who witness first-hand the plane crashing into the Hudson, the various rescue crews who worked to make sure everyone got off the sinking plane safely; this shows just how many people were involved in the accident and recovery from said accident besides Sully. As much as this could have potentially removed the spotlight from Sully entirely, and rendering the idea of making a film with him as the lead kind of moot, it only ends up strengthening his presence in the narrative. Sully, in no uncertain terms, isn’t special. He is simply a man who did precisely what he needed to do in order to save everyone from an unfortunate accident, as did everyone else. This collaborative tone of how the rescue itself is depicted, honestly, is rather galvanizing because it shows what can happen when we all work together. Such a notion is quite typical of Oscar fare, but rarely is it shown with as much potency these days as it is here. This is probably helped by how inexplicably well they managed to portray the weather on that day, to the point where you actively start to feel chilly just watching it.

This film’s humanitarian mood even manages to work past the story’s quite wonky pacing. Had the events been depicted in chronological order, from the pre-amble before take-off to the flight itself to the investigation into Sully’s actions after the fact, this film would have fared a hell of a lot better. Instead, we get all of the invigorating moments told in flashback, and with rather lengthy flashbacks at that, the result of which being kind of bringing the use of including the aftermath at all into question. I’m not usually picky when it comes to this more jumbled narrative timeline, as I’ve been able to look past it the numerous times Christopher Nolan has done much the same thing, but here it does end up detracting from the film’s good parts. Not by much, though. Eastwood clearly wanted to show humanity at its finest and most brotherly (and sisterly, if we must be pedantic) and, through how everyone is shown working together in the rescue effort, we certainly get that impression. It’s just hindered somewhat by how the event itself is spaced out and chopped up through the film. If more use was made of the flashback technique, like when we see Sully’s earlier flying experiences when in training and in the Army, it would feel a lot less disjointed than it does.

And then there’s the political aspect of the piece. For anyone who regularly follows Mr. Eastwood’s quotes in the news, you will know that “Clint Eastwood” and “politics” go together about as well as “open flame” and “canister of diesel fuel”. This film ends up starting on a bad foot with this in mind, as the NTSB actually running the investigation into the crash come across as the kind of government bureaucrats that make for extremely easy cannon fodder in these sorts of stories. It’s because of this precise reason that the long deviations from their plot are actually kind of welcomed, as they allow the audience to focus more on how good we are collectively as humans instead of how nit-picky and kind of aggressive some of us are as humans. This isn’t helped by how, seemingly out of nowhere, we get a reference to the 9/11 attacks in how Sully’s efforts have brought the first good bit of news concerning planes to New York in a very long time. It’s jarring, even more so than the editing, and it did cause me to boil ever so slightly. I’ve already made notes before about how I don’t like painfully obvious thematic messages, and I like them even less so when they just careen on screen and then just leave immediately afterwards, affecting the story very little aside from shoehorned-in pathos. When the film is so damn good at delivering pathos to begin with, it makes this addition stick out even worse. The only thing more obvious than the politics on display is the effects work, which manages to inch dangerously close to Jersey Boys in terms of slapshod special effects. The shots of planes seem to vary between decent and clearly-not-there at random, and the scene where Sully and the crew are on Letterman is kind of painful to watch because of how out-of-place they look next to him. Forrest Gump, this is not, and the fact that the footage they’re splicing into isn’t even a decade old just perplexes me considering the effect they ended up with.

All in all, despite my bitching about rather irrelevant crap (like always, I know), this is really damn good. It embodies pretty much everything good that is associated with the label “Oscar bait”, in that it makes a point to show not only how courageous the characters in the film are but how courageous we are by genetic proxy. Much like with Our Kind Of Traitor, I found myself getting quite weepy at the gallantry on screen, made even better by how Tom Hanks as our main character anchors the film in a very realistic position to make those actions strike even harder. If this is where the flooding begins, it’s certainly a good watermark to set for the rest of them over the next few months. It’s better than Where To Invade Next, a phrase that will no doubt piss off Michael Moore given how he thought of Eastwood’s last feature, but when comparing both films in terms of political stances, this film wins out for being more concrete. However, even though both films reached me on an emotional level, Blood Father ranks higher through more engaging characters and that surrender scene still gives me chills thinking back on it.

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