Thursday, January 19, 2017

Plane Spoken

The Oscar nominations still haven't been announced, but enough of the precursor awards have made their nominations that the likely landscape is taking shape. One movie that now seems to be on the margins is Sully, the tale of airline pilot "Sully" Sullenberger and his emergency landing on the Hudson River. It was a headline so omnipresent that everyone knows the story, and that presents an interesting challenge for this film adaptation.

There's little point in spending a whole movie on pre-emergency Sully leading up to the crash. Nor would it work to start with the Hudson River landing and then let all of the tension out of the film in the hour to follow. So scriptwriter Todd Komarnicki made the decision to tell the story out of order. Post-crash investigations are shuffled together with fragments of the event itself, which is gradually unfolded from different perspectives. Brief flashbacks to a much younger Sully are also stitched into the patchwork. The results do work, to some extent. It is remarkable how events you know well (and have even seen earlier in the movie) can play out with taut suspense. Credit the skillful directing and tight cutting of Clint Eastwood.

But Komarnicki's script and Eastwood's directing have some flaws as well. Like Eastwood's last movie, American Sniper, it seems not to be enough to show someone displaying heroism in the course of "just doing their job." They have to be persecuted too; the movie is almost aiming at deification. Much of Sully's scant 90-minute run time is devoted to a witch hunt looking to railroad Sully for his ostensibly bad judgment. It does work as a story point, but it's hit on awfully hard for not really being the emotional core of the tale.

That core is how seriously Sully takes his role safeguarding the lives of his passengers. And unfortunately, the shuffling around of the narrative delays any real examination of this until quite deep in the film. The "big moment," if you will, comes when Sully learns whether there were any casualties in his emergency landing, and that comes more than 2/3rds of the way into the movie. This might not be as noticeable as it is were it not for the phenomenal acting of Tom Hanks. In many ways, the scene echoes Hanks' amazing work at the end of Captain Phillips, perhaps being even more impressive in being more subtle and straitjacketed. In any case, the scene gives the movie a shot of emotional adrenaline that propels it into a moving final act. But by that point, the audience has had a bit too long to drift into a place of wondering "what's the point of all this?"

The movie otherwise balances elements on opposite sides of the scale. There's a deep cast of great actors including Laura Linney, Anna Gunn, and more... but outside of Aaron Eckhart, no one but Hanks really has much to do. The visual effects are quite convincing, but the music is a bit over the top. And so on, pluses and minuses.

All told, I'd say it works out to around a B-. Tom Hanks again proves how great an actor he is, but I can otherwise understand if the film gets left out of the Oscar hunt.

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