SULLY (2016) – Remarkable Story, Exceptional Movie

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sully

SULLY (2016) has a remarkable story to tell, so even if it were just a mediocre movie, it would still be worth seeing due to the strength of its story.  The good news is SULLY is more than just a mediocre movie:  it’s an impeccably made film by director Clint Eastwood, and it features yet another superb performance by Tom Hanks, which means that simply put, SULLY is  an exceptional movie, one that you should definitely see at the theater.

SULLY tells the incredible true story of the “Miracle on the Hudson,” which occurred on January 15, 2009 when airline Captain Chesley Sullenberger guided his disabled plane onto the frigid waters of the Hudson River, a forced landing in which all 155 people on board, passengers and crew, survived.

Sully (Tom Hanks) becomes an instant hero.  Yet, the airline and its insurance company are none too happy that one of their planes ended up in the Hudson River.  In fact, their computer simulations show that the plane could have made it to two airports.  They believe Sully erred in his decision to land the plane on the water.  Of course, Sully disagrees, saying it’s his belief that there was no way they would have made it to an airport.  He did the only thing he could do.

Suddenly Sully and co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) are the subjects of a massive investigation into the forced landing, putting their reputations on the line, and in Sully’s case, making him second guess himself, fearing that perhaps he made a mistake and put the lives of the 155 people on board in jeopardy.

There are many fine things about SULLY.

To begin with, it has an excellent script by Todd Komarnicki, based on the book  “Highest Duty” by Chesley Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow.  It makes the wise choice of not telling its tale in chronological order.  Had it done so, the movie would have featured the exciting forced landing first, leaving the anti-climactic and dialogue-driven investigation to follow.  When SULLY opens, the forced landing has already happened, and the movie dives right into the investigation.  The landing is shown via flashbacks.

The dialogue is first-rate, and there are plenty of memorable lines, like when an official congratulates Sully and tells him that New York hasn’t had much good news lately, especially with stories involving airplanes.

What can you say about director Clint Eastwood at this point?  Eastwood is 86 years old, and the fact that at his age he’s still directing and sometimes acting in movies is incredible.  And he’s not only making movies, but he’s making quality movies!  Before SULLY, he directed AMERICAN SNIPER (2014), one of the best movies of that year.  SULLY is one of the best movies of this year.

For years, starting in the 1960s, Eastwood was the best action star on the planet.  In 1992, he won an Oscar for Best Director for UNFORGIVEN (1992), a film that also won Best Picture that year, in what many at the time considered to be Eastwood’s swan song.  Eastwood was 62.  Since then, Eastwood has gone on to direct one quality movie after another.  Sure, he’s had some misfires along the way— HEREAFTER  (2010), for example— but for the most part his films have been phenomenal.  His last two movies AMERICAN SNIPER and JERSEY BOYS (2014) were both among my favorite films of 2014.  And I can’t stress this enough:  Eastwood is 86 years old.  It’s quite possible that when his career is over, he might be remembered more for being one of Hollywood’s greatest directors than one of its greatest action stars.

Eastwood does a phenomenal job here with SULLY.  The high energy behind this movie is not what you expect from a director pushing 90.  AMERICAN SNIPER may be the more impressive of the two films, because it had a more complicated story to tell, whereas SULLY just on the strength of its story alone promises to be a crowd pleaser.

But Eastwood uses his talents behind the camera to make this movie even better.  The investigation scenes have Eastwood’s stamp all over them.  Indeed, you can trace the theme here all the way back to Eastwood’s iconic actioner DIRTY HARRY (1971), which of course he only starred in, but Eastwood embraced Harry Callahan’s law-in-your-own-hands anti-burearacy philosophy as his own, and it would show up in future Dirty Harry films and other Eastwood projects.

You can see it here in SULLY.  Aaron Eckhart’s Jeff Skiles tells his best friend Sully that the airline should be praising Sully— everyone survived!— not investigating him.  But that’s not enough for the airline.  Their plane ended up in the river, and in their eyes, that’s something that should not have happened.  Sure, no one died, but everyone’s life was put in jeopardy.  In Eastwood’s vision, this way of thinking is insanely ridiculous.

Eastwood also makes wise creative choices.  The forced landing is shown twice.  The first time we see it from different perspectives, including from the air traffic controllers who are desperately trying to convince Sully to head to an airport.  But the second time it’s shown in real time and never leaves the cockpit and so we see Sully and co-pilot Skiles deal with the situation as it happens.

Both sequences are incredibly intense, and they provide some of the best cinematic moments of the year.

And both Eastwood and the script take full advantage of our emotions.  We follow a few of the passengers specifically, including a man flying with his two adult sons, and after the landing, they are separated.  Later, once they find each other, one of the sons exclaims, “Can you believe this?  We crashed!  And we all survived!”  It’s the perfect sentiment as it is what everyone in the audience is thinking.

The sequence after the crash, when everyone is in the water, waiting to be rescued by the oncoming ferryboats and New York rescue crews is also intense because the water is icy cold and the rescuers only have minutes to work with.  Later, Aaron Eckhart’s Skiles declares, “I’ve never been happier to be in New York!”

Tom Hanks is superb as Sully.  The best part of his performance is the self-doubt he puts himself through, wondering if perhaps his instincts were wrong.  Hanks also shows how important duty is to Sully.  Once they land in the water, he makes sure he’s the last one off the plane, that everyone has gotten off, and he doesn’t relax until he knows for sure that no one has died.  The moment the news is relayed to him that all 155 people on board have been accounted for is one of the more emotional moments in the movie.

Like Eastwood and his previous film, AMERICAN SNIPER, Hanks in his previous movie BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015) may have had a more challenging assignment in that he played a more complicated character.  But as Sully, Hanks is excellent.  It’s another terrific peformance by the very talented actor.

Aaron Eckhart is also memorable as co-pilot Jeff Skiles.  And the rest of the cast, in smaller roles, are all solid.

The past few weeks have seen the release of some outstanding movies, like the critically acclaimed HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016), and the under-the-radar HANDS OF STONE (2016).  SULLY is right up there with these gems, perhaps even the best of the bunch.

It’s certainly the most inspiring and emotionally satisfying.

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Tom Hanks’ First-Rate Performance Leads CAPTAIN PHILLIPS

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captain-phillips-posterMovie Review:  CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (2013)

by

Michael Arruda

 

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (2013) almost wowed me.

 

It’s exciting enough, and Tom Hanks certainly delivers a first-rate performance in the lead role, but once again, it’s a case where a movie’s trailer reveals too much information about the film’s plot.  I pretty much knew the entire story going into the theater because I had seen the trailer.  There were few surprises left.

 

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS is based on the true story of the hijacking of an American ship by Somali pirates in 2009, the first time an American vessel had been hijacked in two hundred years.

 

Tom Hanks plays Captain Richard Phillips, the captain of a cargo ship, the U.S. Maersk Alabama.  Captain Phillips is a competent captain, and once his ship is in international waters near Somalia, he immediately instructs his crew to go through the proper drills because he’s aware of the frequent pirate activity in the area.  His fears are quickly confirmed, as armed pirates are spotted racing towards the ship.

 

Phillips orders the ship to take evasive maneuvers, and the crew use hoses to fend off the pirates, but it’s not enough as a small group of armed Somalian pirates make it on board.  At this point, Phillips orders the ship into full lockdown, where the crew hides to avoid becoming hostages.

 

The pirates are led by a young man named Muse (Barkhad Abdi) who is trying to prove his mettle by taking on such a huge ship. Phillips offers to give them the $30,000 that’s in their safe, but that’s not enough for Muse.  He decides to search the rest of the ship for the crew and other treasures. 

 

Muse is driven by the need to bring back large amounts of money to the armed lords pulling the strings in Somalia. 

 

When things go wrong, Muse and his pirates take Captain Phillips hostage and leave the ship in a lifeboat, where they are pursued by the U.S. Navy who has orders to do whatever it takes to prevent Phillips from reaching Somalia.

 

All of this was pretty much shown in the film’s trailer.  The only thing in doubt was how it would end, and based on my memory of the real event back in 2009, I had a pretty good idea where things would go.

 

That’s not to say I didn’t like CAPTAIN PHILLIPS.  It’s just that I would have enjoyed it more had I not seen so much of it already before I paid for my ticket.

 

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS sinks or swims with Tom Hanks, and since he turns in his usual strong performance, CAPTAIN PHILLIPS doesn’t sink.  As the movie goes along, and things grow tenser, Hank’s performance intensifies as well.  The emotions he experiences reminded me somewhat of what Sandra Bullock’s character goes through in the recent movie GRAVITY (2013).  Now, GRAVITY is a much more stylish and original film than CAPTAIN PHILLIPS and as such I enjoyed it more, but in terms of acting, Hanks’ performance is right up there with Bullock’s. 

 

Barkhad Abdi in his first acting performance is pretty darn good as Muse, but the fact of the matter is I never felt much sympathy for Muse and his pirates, nor was I that interested in their back story.  While the movie does show us a little bit of what their life was like in Somalia, it doesn’t show us enough.

 

Nonetheless, CAPTAIN PHILLIPS tells a riveting story, and it’s told in a straightforward linear manner by director Paul Greengrass, with the suspense gradually building towards a very tense conclusion.  That being said, I enjoyed last year’s ARGO (2012) much better than CAPTAIN PHILLIPS.   ARGO knocked the ball out of the park when it came to building up the tension, and it simply had a more interesting story to tell.

 

Director Greengrass actually scored higher on the suspense meter with his BOURNE movies, as he directed THE BOURNE SUPREMACY (2004) and THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM (2007), the second and third movies in the Matt Damon Bourne series.  Greengrass also directed UNITED 93 (2006) and GREEN ZONE (2010), a thriller about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, so he’s no stranger to films about current events.

 

The screenplay by Billy Ray, based on the book “A Captain’s Duty:  Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea” by Richard Phillips, tells a straightforward story which does a nice job with the human element.  Not only do we get inside the head of Captain Phillips and feel his fear, but we also get a good sense of how afraid the crew felt.  That being said, we don’t really get to know any of the other crew members all that well.  Captain Phillips is pretty much it.

 

That’s because Ray’s screenplay also builds itself around the pirates.  The second most developed character in the movie is the lead pirate Muse.  Ray didn’t seem to be building sympathy for Muse and his motives as much as an understanding.  In this regard, Ray succeeds.  I had a pretty good understanding of Muse’s motives.  I just didn’t feel much sympathy for him. 

 

Ray also worked on the screenplay to THE HUNGER GAMES (2012) a movie that did a better job fleshing out its characters and telling its story.  I liked CAPTAIN PHILLIPS well enough.  I just didn’t love it.

 

The best part of the movie by far is Tom Hanks’ performance, and he gets better as the film goes along and his character faces more and more peril. The rest of the movie, the acting, the actual story, direction, and the screenplay are all above average, but what’s missing is edge-of-your-seat suspense and characters you can both root for and sympathize with.  These latter two elements are several notches below what Hanks brings to the film.  It’s too bad because Hanks brings quite a lot. 

 

CAPTAIN PHILLIPS reminds us that even though our world is changing dramatically, human beings still remain trapped in situations in which they have little control, often leading them to make decisions to harm others for profit.  In this regard, the world hasn’t changed much at all.

 

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