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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Nocturnal Animals

Cast: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Armie Hammer, Laura Linney, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Sheen

Director: Tom Ford

Writer: Tom Ford


After having worked as the creative director for both Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, Tom Ford has become a master of blending art, style and beauty in his films. In Nocturnal Animals he has created one of the most meticulously crafted and striking films of the year. It is an ambiguous film and the meaning of Ford’s images is not always clear, as with the very first shots which provoked outrage among both critics and viewers for what they deemed to be gratuity or body shaming. I must confess that I’m somewhat confounded by those images as well. I am restraining myself from revealing the nature of these images because I think the shock must have a role to play in the effect that Ford is going for. I will say that these images did make me feel uncomfortable but they also made me critically aware of my discomfort. Now I’m asking myself whether I was right to feel uncomfortable at all, a question that I suspect Ford must have expected from many of his viewers. This film is so perplexingly uncomfortable and beautiful at once that I think Ford might have been disappointed had I not left the screening feeling confounded.

After hosting a conceptual art exhibit at her gallery Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) receives a manuscript for a novel penned by her ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). Susan, living a dejected life of passionless work and love with her adulterous husband Hutton (Arnie Hammer), is captivated by the novel that has been dedicated to her. It tells the dark story of family man Tony Hastings (also played by Gyllenhaal) whose holiday with wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and India (Ellie Bamber) takes a horrific turn when they encounter a gang of reprobates led by Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). This story provokes memories of Susan’s relationship with Edward and the troubles that drew them apart. He wanted her to pursue her artistic calling whereas she wanted him to be more realistic about his literary aspirations. As Susan reads more of Edward’s novel it becomes clearer to her that the disturbing, devastating story he has conceived is an allusion towards the terrible betrayal that destroyed their marriage.

There are three interrelated narratives being told that Ford blends together into one incredible whole. One is the story of an utterly miserable person reflecting on the choices that have led her to where she is. The other is a dark and twisted tale of loss and revenge. Finally, there is the story of an idealistic romance that woefully (and perhaps inevitably) ends in heartbreak. I was particularly struck by how invested and horrified I, much like Susan, was by the second narrative considering that it’s a fictional story within a fictional story. That narrative alone would have made for a compelling film complete with stellar performances by Taylor-Johnson and Michael Shannon as a worn-down lawman with nothing left to lose. The ultimate story that is being told however adds even greater depth and darkness to what is already an unsettling tale. Isla Fisher’s character for instance serves Edward’s story not only as a wife for his protagonist but also as a clear stand in for Susan. When we see what happens to Tony’s wife later in the novel, it invites all sorts of compelling questions about what exactly Edward is trying to tell his ex-wife by sending her this manuscript and dedicating it to her, especially in light of what we later learn about their marriage.

We see Adams play Susan as both a naïve romantic full of dreams and fancies and as a shell of her former self rendered numb by her cold, empty life. Even when Adams is simply reading the manuscript, she is performing. Her distraught reactions reinforce the ominous nature of Edward’s story every bit as much as Ford’s tone and style in his representation. In this film Susan undergoes a crisis of conscience as she contemplates whether she is being punished for an awful mistake and Adams is to be applauded for deftly conveying her tumultuous, troubled state of mind in a remarkably restrained, understated performance. Gyllenhaal’s Edward also provides an intriguing figure as the Susan’s spurned, estranged ex-husband. The film sets him up as an almost ethereal figure by providing us with two different versions of him: we see the Edward that Susan remembers in her memories and his representation of himself in the novel he’s written. Thus as the film draws closer to the climatic meeting between them, the more intrigued we are to see who he is today and how he really feels about Susan.

The final scene is one that has sparked much debate amongst viewers. Some might call it a confounding ending, but I for one would expect nothing less from such a confounding film as Nocturnal Animals. The film is fascinating in its dark and twisted nature and is almost sickening in its beauty. You want to look away but you just can’t. The cinematography, the colours, the music; it is a film that completely envelops you and refuses to let go. Some scenes are entirely unbearable to watch and yet, much like when I first saw Blue Velvet and A Clockwork Orange, my eyes were fixed squarely on the screen the entire time. It isn’t as violent a film as those two are but it is similar in its dreadful intensity and disturbed artistry. Most of the wounds that are inflicted in this film are emotional ones (the ones in the “real world” anyway) but they are severe all the same. Nocturnal Animals is also an ambiguous film, the kind that believes in providing the pieces to the puzzle but won’t assemble them for you. Watching this film was a gruelling experience but it was also a mesmerising one.

★★★★★

Mr. Holmes

Cast: Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Hiroyuki Sanada, Milo Parker

Director: Bill Condon

Writer: Jeffrey Hatcher


Sir Ian McKellen, having played both Gandalf and Magneto on screen, knows a thing or two about playing iconic characters. Often when a character becomes iconic, the audience mythologises them. Their images and ideas of these characters become so ingrained in their minds that any change or deviancy from the original is often regarded with hostility, even when it’s done well and with the best intentions. Indeed, history has actually shown that it is possible for these characters to be reinterpreted and reinvented in many different ways while still remaining true to the essence of what makes them iconic. Sherlock Holmes, one of the most iconic characters in all of film and literature, is a prime example in this regard. From Basil Rathbone as the dignified and enigmatic sleuth, to Jeremy Brett as the unhinged and eccentric obsessive, to Benedict Cumberbatch as the modern-day high-functioning sociopath, many have offered their own unique portrayals of the great detective while still remaining true to the heart and soul of the character. This film explores the theme of the mythology of heroes by showing Sherlock Holmes, a man who both defines and defies the legend surrounding him, in the autumn years of his life.

Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) is 93 years old and has retired to the country. Watson, Mycroft and Mrs. Hudson have long since departed and so he spends his days in isolation tending to his bees with only his housemaid Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her son Roger (Milo Parker) as company. As he looks back at the circumstances of his final case and Watson’s portrayal of what happened, he finds himself unsettled by the unsatisfactory outcome of the story. In his attempt to remember what really happened and what catastrophic event must have actually taken place to have driven him into retirement, Sherlock becomes all too aware of his failing mind. All he remembers are fragments concerning a beautiful woman whose picture he still holds. The man who made his name and who became a legend for his singular ability to solve puzzles and mysteries becomes lost in his quest to unlock the secrets to his own mind and to human nature.

Unlike the recent offerings of the Sherlock Holmes mythos by Guy Ritchie and Steven Moffatt; Mr. Holmes is a quieter, more tempered story. This is something I found to be both a strength and a weakness. On one hand the tranquil tone of the film reflects the docility of Holmes’ life as he spends his remaining days contemplating and reflecting on the days of adventure now long behind him. On the other hand watching this film can be a laborious task as the story does drag at certain parts. Since this film does emphasise that the Sherlock Holmes of Watson’s stories is in fact a romanticised depiction of the man himself, it should therefore be no surprise that this film contains little of the exhilaration or the thrills for which his stories are known. Nonetheless I still found myself somewhat underwhelmed by how modest and restrained this film turned out to be.

Sir Ian McKellen provides an elegant performance both as the ageing Sherlock Holmes slowly succumbing to the dilapidation of age and as the younger Holmes at the prime of his wit and intellect undergoing what will be his final case. The bond he forms with Roger provides an emotional core to the story that I hadn’t expected to see and eventually leads to some fine moments both touching and heartrending. However I still felt like it could have been taken further. I never really felt like the Sherlock of this film ever really substantiated the remarkable, singular mind from the stories and perhaps that was the point, but still it seemed to me like the film could have delved further into Holmes’ psyche and could have gone further to show the gears at work. As refined and poignant as I found McKellen’s performance to be, I never really felt like the film got beneath the skin of his character. Although this film did an admirable job of showing the devastating effects age can have on a person, I didn’t really think it left much of an impression on me or really made its impact felt. The elements were all certainly there, I just think they could have been developed further.

Still, with all of its restraint and shortcomings, there is much about this film to admire. McKellen shines in the role of the great detective and provides his most emotional performance in years. The film is artistically shot and provides some beautiful images of the English countryside. The idea of man and myth is a compelling one as the film discusses the legend of Sherlock Holmes and its relationship to the man himself as well as offering an insight into the question of what happens to the hero after the legend is over. Even though the story is understated, the emotional journey of Holmes is diffident and the film commits the heinous crime of underusing Laura Linney, it is an interesting and sometimes moving film that provides an intriguing take on Conan Doyle’s creation.

★★★