Sunday, September 25, 2016

SULLY Brought To You By...

"Awesome" is a much overused word nowadays but it is totally accurate in describing the life-saving accomplishment of Captain Chesley Sullenberger.  Tom Hanks is perfectly cast as SULLY, the man who became an American hero for doing his job.  Hanks is excellent and I will not be surprised if he makes the list of Oscar nominees for Best Actor.  I would be surprised if Clint Eastwood makes the list of Oscar nominees for Best Director.  He's not at his best here.  He left product placement and in-house promotion get the better of him as a filmmaker.  SULLY is entertaining and touching, but not isn't a top Eastwood outing like UNFORGIVEN, FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS and LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA. Tom Hanks' star power is a great asset for this movie.  Looks-wise, he may seem like an unusual casting choice in the same way middle-aged James Stewart did playing young Charles Lindbergh in Billy Wilder's 1957 film, THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS.  But it's the star's All-American movie star appeal, acting skill and special place in the heart of moviegoers that makes him the perfect choice.  The qualities and virtues he represents are perfect for the image of an American hero.  Captain Chesley Sullenberger is an American hero played by a beloved American star.
 I was living in New York City that January day in 2009 when "The Miracle on the Hudson" occurred.  You've got to admit, it was miraculous.  His US Airways passenger flight was disabled by a flock of geese during its ascent out of LaGuardia Airport.  In the movie, the dedicated and experienced captain is being grilled by the N.T.S.B, the National Transportation Safety Board.  His newfound status as an American hero could and his reputation could be ruined if the NTSB finds that he could have returned to LaGuardia after the geese strike instead of landing on the Hudson.  This rather mean interrogation seems like an element of liberty taken with the tone of actual events for the sake of dramatic tension in the screenplay.  We know what the most riveting part of the film will be.  The plane's forced landing with 155 people onboard.  This is in a New York City changed forever by the tragic events of September 11th in 2001.  America was terrorized by pure evil at work, evil that took over commercial airliners and used them as lethal weapons, killing hundreds of innocent people.                                                                
Captain Sullenberger's experience and professionalism and grace under extreme pressure resurrected our faith in miracles.  Here's a trailer.

SULLY isn't really a biopic.  Within the dramatic story of this veteran pilot getting 155 passengers to safety after a plane's serious malfunction is a plea for the respect of age and experience.  That is the heart of the movie -- a plea for the respect of age and experience.  At the beginning of the story, when Captain Sullenberger must testify before the NTSB, he calls his wife and says "...I did the best I could."  At the end of the story, Sully gets his co-pilot alone and thanks him with a humility and graciousness that's been his hallmark the entire film.  Sully says, "We did our job."  Those two lines of dialogue delivered by Tom Hanks are, to me, the heart of Eastwood's message in this film.  We're now in a society that wants to kick experienced employees to the curb merely because they're in the AARP age category.  Useful employees.  A sense of humanity is being ejected from the American workforce.

As for Eastwood's directorial effort, he must have been forced into product placement and in-house promotion.  Sully and his co-pilot are put up in a Marriott Hotel.  If I saw that Marriott sign one more time on a building or a hotel bathrobe -- let's just say that once or twice was enough.  We even learn that a Snickers bar costs $5.00 from a Marriott Hotel room mini-bar.  Then there's a scene that could have been dropped totally.  A troubled Sully is restless one night.  He goes out for a jog.  Then he stops into a pub for a drink.  There are two patrons who recognized the silver-haired hero immediately.  These two patrons are just like the two guys who recognize Alvy Singer in line for a movie in ANNIE HALL.  Alvy describes the pair as "..two guys named Cheech."  The bartender also recognizes Sully and is awestruck.  He makes Sully a special cocktail named in his honor.  The Sully is Grey Goose with a splash of water.  I'm sorry but that drink name seemed like a gag worked seriously into a movie scene.  What is the point of the scene?  Sully looks at the TV screen above the bar.  We've seen TV reports of "The Miracle on the Hudson" earlier in the film.  Sully is watching a report of his astonishing feat.  We've seen this kind of report already.  But this report Sully watches is on the New York all-news cable channel, NY1.  SULLY is a Warner Brothers Time Warner release.  NY1 is a Time Warner station.  See what I mean?  That scene wasn't really necessary.  It was in-house promotion.

Katie Couric is in SULLY as herself. Her scene with Tom Hanks is one I'd use as an example for acting class students.  Her appearance does seem like stunt casting because the network interviewer part could have been done by any actor or actress, black, white, yellow or brown.  It was not important that Katie Couric be in the movie as Katie Couric.  But she is. And you catch her acting at portraying herself.  Meanwhile, in the same scene, you see Hanks being Captain Sullenberger.

The scene from inside the airplane as passengers are instructed by two steady and professional female flight attendants to "Brace for impact!" is gripping.  And the surprisingly happy outcome brought a tear to my eye.  If I had a job as a contributor on a network news magazine show, I'd like to interview a few folks who were passengers on that flight.  I'd ask how their lives changed.  Did they keep the same jobs they had?  Did they draw closer to relatives and friends?  Did they live their lives differently keep doing things the same way?

The almost incredibly handsome Aaron Eckhart co-stars as Captain Sullenberger's co-pilot and does his usual excellent job.  If he had been around in the 1940s and 50s, he probably would've pulled roles away from the likes of Kirk Douglas, Rock Hudson and Tony Curtis with his good looks combined with fine acting chops.  In SULLY, he sports sort of a hot 1980s porn star mustache.
Aaron Eckhart makes you want to say, "Need some help in the...cockpit?"  Woof!
There is another miracle in SULLY besides the airplane landing on the Hudson.  Laura Linney actually makes something out of a nearly nothing role as Mrs. Sullenberger.  Linney is mostly on the phone saying anxious things to Captain Sullenberger like "Are you alright, honey?  Talk to me."

Director Clint Eastwood was heavily influenced by, among other directors, Preston Sturges.  Look closely and you can see the influence of Sturges' 1944 wartime satire, HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO, in Eastwood's true life tale, FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS.  Both films pose tough questions about patriotism, American hero worship and the marketing of heroes.

As I wrote earlier, Sully says a heartfelt "We did our job" to his co-pilot in the last act.  That moment has all the same sentiment as the end of HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO when Eddie Bracken as the 4-F Woodrow during World War 2 says to a group of Marines "I knew the Marines could do almost anything, but I never knew they could do anything like this."  The Sergeant replies, "You got no idea."

If only Eastwood had done as thoroughly a good job with SULLY as Preston Sturges did with HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO.  Nonetheless, SULLY was still worth seeing.  It's inspiring and Hanks is in first-rate form.  Clint Eastwood may not get an Oscar nomination for Best Director but he could get an Oscar nomination in the Best Song category.  The song at the end of SULLY, heard when we see closing credits and footage of the real-life passengers and crew reunited with Capt. Sullenberger himself, is a beauty.  Clint Eastwood co-wrote that song.  It's titled "Flying Home."

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