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FILM REVIEW: Sully (2016)

  October 23rd, 2016     Film Reviews     0

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When it comes to biopics, there often seems to be one main argument: “How important is historical accuracy?”. Many movies are created by using real life events as inspiration, and in fact, the first screenplays were written by reporters using pulled-from-the-headlines stories for fodder. When most audiences see films that tout the “based on a true story” qualifier, they are inclined to believe that the film is telling what really happened, rather than what every film must do which is take a story and use it to create an engaging and cohesive plot. Life does not usually have a clear story arc, so one needs to be created out of part of a person’s life to make it interesting or relatable. I have never felt that accuracy is as important as crafting realistic characters with a well-rounded and affecting story. What I do care about is when a director takes a real story and injects such melodrama in it that it is unrecognizable from what would happen in real life. It is because of this predilection that I had assumed I would not like Sully, Clint Eastwood’s newest film about the heroic pilot who saved 155 passengers after losing the plane’s engines. I was expecting a film following a harrowing plane crash, with one man single-handedly saving the day. Luckily, I could not have been more wrong.

 It’s not that Eastwood doesn’t make a hero out of Chesely “Sully” Sullenberger, the pilot who landed a commercial flight on the Hudson River without having any casualties in 2009; he does. It’s the way Eastwood shows us Sully’s heroism, however, that is unlike anything I’ve witnessed in a biopic before, especially one portraying the tale of a bonafide “American Hero”. Rather than portraying Sully as a perfect human specimen, the film has us question Sully and the entire notion of the “American hero”. Throughout the film, we are shown the plane’s crash-landing multiple times, and while the scene adds the action sequence that is necessary in so many films today, its main purpose is showing us what happened as many times as possible so that we can determine for ourselves whether or not Sully made the right decision. Even Sully is uncertain in his actions, shown through frightening dreams where he ends up landing the plane in the middle of New York City, which would have recreated the events of 9/11 for a city that was still healing after only 8 years, or where everyone on the new calls his decision into question.

At the beginning, the film makes the audience feel like the dreams and PTSD are due to Sully’s new fame and not knowing how to handle it, as well as possibly being too humble. If this was the only route the film had taken, it would not be as impressive. What worked for me is how the film subverts this idea by presenting the evidence and accounts of everyone else who has some relation to the landing. We get to see the hearing with the National Transportation Safety Board, where they say that one engine was still idle when Sully landed the plane. We see the control room, where the air traffic controller warns Sully not to land in the Hudson multiple times, and even ends in him crying because he knows it was the wrong call. We see the direct aftermath of the landing, where over a hundred people are forced to exit a sinking plane and wait in the freezing water, minutes from death. None of these moments install confidence that Sully is a perfect, infallible human who saved the day without incident.

What they do is show us Sully’s humanity. If Sully was a perfect specimen, he would have reacted differently in his situation. The film goes through painstaking effort to show us that he is human, and as such acts like a human would, not like a robot. What felt like half the film’s runtime was dedicated to deciphering what Sully should have done so he wouldn’t have to land on the Hudson, and the answer is clear: not be a human. How Sully reacts to being deemed innocent is telling as well. We aren’t treated to an over the top reaction complete with cheering, but rather just Sully and First Officer Jeff Skiles excuse themselves for a moment, go out in the hall, and talk about how they did their job. They don’t say “we were right!” or “we won!”. They are humans who did what they had to do, and do not put themselves on pedestals. This adds a complexity to the film that other biopics often lack.  Specifically, by showing Sully as a multifaceted person rather than a symbol, the film is able to deconstruct the traditional ideal of “American hero” and provide a more realistic approach to a person that did do something great, but should still not be mistaken for a god.

Of course, Sully doesn’t forgo the typical biopic dramatics entirely. While Eastwood is able to make the most mundane moments of the proceedings — such as the hearing and multiple robotics simulations — seem electrifying, it is clear that a bit of movie magic is used to make them as dramatic and intense as they are. To me, however, it is not necessarily a negative thing that these scenes are so interesting; that is just a byproduct of good filmmaking. It were these scenes that provoked the most emotional response in me, as I was both frustrated in the panel’s inability to understand Sully’s position, and overwhelmingly relieved when Sully was declared innocent.

I’m not sure how much of the film is accurate. I don’t particularly care if every detail was correct, or if maybe the real Sully was not as nice of a person as the film, and the casting of Tom Hanks, suggests. What I do care about is that Clint Eastwood was able to give the portrait of a man who managed to do the right thing, but while everyone may be treating him like a God, he is still shown to be human. He gets PTSD, he’s distant with his wife, and he doubts himself. He was right, but he is not perfect, and as the end of the film reminds us, he could not have saved all those people without the help of the NYPD and the captains and workers on the various ships that hurried over the bring the passengers aboard. Sully may not be perfect, but it doesn’t claim that it’s hero is, and that is what’s important.

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