Sully

Cast: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney, Anna Gunn, Mike O’Malley

Director: Clint Eastwood

Writer: Todd Komarnicki


In his work Clint Eastwood has shown great admiration for the everyday hero, the ones who are motivated not by glory but by duty and who go beyond what is expected of them. In his last feature, American Sniper, he dramatized the life of a Navy SEAL who served four tours abroad and amassed the greatest body count of any marksman in U.S. military history but was traumatised not by the lives he claimed but by the lives he failed to save. Here he tells the tale of a figure who performs an extraordinary feat and is then similarly haunted by how badly it all could have gone if things had happened only slightly differently. Like Chris Kyle, Sully rejects the label of ‘hero’, insisting that he was simply doing his job, as was everyone else involved in the landing and rescue that took place. In Captain Sully Eastwood has found a champion for the traits he admires (professionalism, selflessness and humility) and he uses this film to celebrate those qualities.

On January 15 2009 Captain Chesley Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) stunned the world when, upon losing both engines on his plane immediately after take off, made an emergency landing in the Hudson River. Later, after Sully has been hailed as a hero by the world, an inquiry is made looking into his actions. When preliminary data reveals that the port engine may have still been active, and thus would have allowed the plane to reach either of the two nearby airports, Sully’s judgement is brought into question. Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), Sully’s co-pilot, staunchly defends his colleague’s actions every step of the way as the committee led by Charles Porter (Mike O’Malley) and Elizabeth Davis (Anna Gunn) contend that Sully’s actions may very well have placed over a hundred people’s lives needlessly at risk. Also lending support to Sully through this inquisition is his wife Lorraine (Laura Linney). Despite what the data and findings seem to suggest, Sully maintains that, after 40 years of flying airliners, every instinct in his body told him that landing in the Hudson was the only option available to him and seeks to prove that.

Tom Hanks is the natural choice for the role of a heroic everyman and delivers a worthy performance. The film’s version of Sully is plain-spoken, straightforward, and is able to maintain a calm composure at the critical moment of the story. Hanks plays him with conviction and dignity as a man who takes immense pride in his work and who treats the responsibility of his job with the seriousness that it deserves. When his decision is brought into question, he conveys his clear disapproval at the Safety Board’s reliance on preliminary data and computerised simulations over his decades of experience and highly-practiced instinct. Eastwood places much emphasis on the critical 208 seconds when Sully and Skiles had to assess what exactly had happened and how to respond with the lives of 155 people at stake. No type of training or simulation, Eastwood concludes, can ever account or compensate for human instinct, especially that of a veteran pilot with a long and distinguished career.

The film’s weakness is that, upon deciding that it couldn’t build its drama around an event where the audience already knew the happy outcome, tries to build its drama around the inquiry that took place afterwards instead. The central conflict thus ends up being pretty black and white with the suits of the NTSB taking a clearly antagonistic role against the idealistically heroic Captain Sully. It’s compelling, to be sure, but it doesn’t make for great drama. A point the film does convey very well is how the Miracle on the Hudson was not the accomplishment of one man but rather of everyone involved doing their jobs at the moment when it mattered most. We see the incident from many different perspectives: the co-pilot, the stewardesses, the passengers, the airline control, the coastguard, and through these varying viewpoints we see the truly miraculous part of this astonishing episode. In their moment of peril, a situation that no airline had ever anticipated before, everyone did exactly what they had to do and they all got out safely in the 24-minute rescue that followed.

Sully is an idealistic film, overly so at some points. The characters that the film wants us to like, like the passengers for instance, are a little too benevolent to come across as real people. Some of the admirations that Sully receives are also a little too on-the-nose, as with the taxi driver who saw Sully as a symbol of hope against all the other bad stuff that happened in the past few months (which he was considerate enough to list). Still, it would be difficult not to be idealistic when faced with such an extraordinary story about such an ordinary man. The film is a celebration of the men and women who perform heroic feats every day in the course of doing their jobs. Sully contemplates at one point how, after such a long and successful career, this is the flight that the world would judge him for, as if 40 years of safely transporting millions of people all over the world should count for nothing. It’s the reason why he doesn’t see himself as a hero, he is a simply a man who did his duty just like he’s always done. Sully did his job, and so have Eastwood and Hanks by making a decent film that succeeds in showcasing exactly what this story means to them.

★★★★

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American Sniper

Cast: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Luke Grimes, Kyle Gallner, Sam Jaeger, Jake McDorman, Cory Hardrict

Director: Clint Eastwood

Writer: Jason Hall


American Sniper has been praised by some critics as this year’s The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty and, like those films, it has run into its share of controversy. Much of this controversy stems from the film’s ideology and from the debate over whether or not the film’s subject Chris Kyle deserves to be hailed as a hero. With 160 confirmed kills Kyle has been declared the most lethal sniper in American military history. Some have declared him to be a hero, allocating him with the nickname ‘Legend’, while others have denounced him as a murderer. Left-leaning critics of the film have branded it a propaganda piece that glorifies war while right-leaning supporters have acclaimed it as a celebration of the US troops and the hardships and sacrifices they have to endure on a daily basis. Personally I’m less interested in the political aspect of this film and more interested in the human aspect. Bradley Cooper, who plays Kyle, has stated that the film was intended to be a story about one man and his internal struggles. That is the film that I wanted to see as I entered the theatre.

The film starts off with an incredible opening scene where Kyle, who is perched on a rooftop in a warzone on the lookout for any potential threats, spots a woman and a young boy entering the site. He fixates upon them, waiting to see what they plan to do. The young boy is handed what looks like an explosive device and Kyle is suddenly faced with a difficult decision. He has seconds to decide whether or not to fire knowing that there will be dire consequences if he makes the wrong choice. He must weigh the ramifications of taking a child’s life against the potential threat posed to his nearby allies and make a split-second decision that he can never take back. Each agonising second that passes is tenser than the last as we wait to see what Kyle will do. It is an opening that instantly grabs your attention and immediately provides the audience with an outline of the inner conflict that will torment Chris Kyle throughout this film.

The film then goes into flashback mode as we see scenes from Kyle’s childhood in which his father teaches him how to shoot and imparts upon him a lesson about how all people are either sheep, wolves or sheepdogs. He is adamant that both of his sons shall grow up to become sheepdogs, i.e. men who stand up to bullies and who help those in need. Cut to a few years later, Kyle is living in Texas as a rodeo cowboy. He spends his days drinking beers with his brother without a worry in the world until one night when he sees the news coverage of the 1998 US embassy bombings. In that moment Kyle feels the call of duty and immediately enlists in the US Navy to become a Navy SEAL. I imagine that Eastwood was trying to appeal to a sense of American patriotism in this scene, and perhaps he succeeded (I’m not American), but to me this moment came across as a bit corny. To the film’s credit it does manage to diminish the supposed glamour of joining the armed forces with its brutal training montage.

Afterwards we see Kyle in a bar where he meets his future wife Taya Renae (Sienna Miller). Throughout this film Miller does do her best with the material she is given, but she simply isn’t given much of a character beyond being Chris Kyle’s wife. They fall in love and get married just before Kyle is deployed to Iraq in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. He excels as a soldier there and builds up a considerable kill count, but it soon becomes clear that the war is having a distressing effect on him. Whenever he comes home to see his family, he isn’t really there as he is still being haunted by the war. He is still driven by a strong sense of duty and refuses to leave the Navy until he believes that he has done enough.

Bradley Cooper does a commendable job of portraying Kyle and the trauma that he experiences. The film makes a strong attempt to depict Kyle as a hero by emphasising how he is haunted not by the lives he has taken but by the lives he failed to save. However my major gripe with this film is that it never really gets under Kyle’s skin. The film does a good job of showing the inner struggle that Kyle suffers but never really tries to uncover a deep understanding of it. The film seems more determined to revere Kyle as a hero rather than view him as a human being. Therefore the sum of his inner conflict simply amounts to him caring too much. This may make for an admirable character but it also makes for a simplistic one.

American Sniper is overall a stirring film with some great moments, but I was ultimately underwhelmed by the lack of a compelling character study. I couldn’t form an emotional bond with Kyle as a character until at the very end when we are shown the archive footage of his memorial service at the Cowboys Stadium. That, for me, was a strong emotional moment because it was actually real. The rest of the film, as decent as it was, never really felt like a real story. Perhaps this is because it was clearly made with a strong ideological motive in mind that was pretty difficult to ignore. Not that there’s anything wrong with having a such a purpose in a film, whether it be politically, morally, or patriotically motivated, I just felt that it got in the way of what could have been a better film.

★★★