Friday, October 14, 2016

Heroes and Villains, Part 1: Sully

"When one is young it seems so very easy to distinguish between right and wrong. But as one gets older it becomes more difficult, the villains and the heroes get all mixed up." 
 Rene Mathis, Quantum of Solace 

The wisdom of the mob plays tricks with reality. You see it a lot, especially as age gives you longevity and experience. You remember incidents that time glosses over in pertinent detail. On the other hand, the demands of the "24 hour news cycle" creates an urgency for happenstance when the "tube" needs to be filled, often with speculation and mis-information that gets refuted later with the clarity of time. Information and time yin and yang separating truth from fiction—but not everybody gets the message. And depending on when the hearing happens, people tend to hear something and believe it, even if it gets refuted. People believe what it is easier to believe...or merely what they want, never mind the facts.

Over the next couple of reviews, recent movies about individuals who are judged by single acts, and whether they are heroes or villains, depends on your point of view in the audience.

Okay, Let's Review...
or
Here, There and Everywhere

Clint Eastwood's new film Sully (based on the events of the US Airways Flight 1549 "Miracle on the Hudson" on January 15, 2009) is a low-key version of Rashomon (directed by Akira Kurosawa, a director Eastwood has some association with), where one event is distilled through different points of view. Eastwood, as is his wont, does it a little differently.

The first version of the flight starts over the standard studio logo's where the events are presented as just sound. These logos have become increasingly interminable and Eastwood, being rigorous, decides not to waste the 30 to 60 seconds of investor credits at the start to prevent just a taste of a normal take-off and the "We've got a problem" moment. Hard cut to Captain Chesley Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) and Captain Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) in the cockpit making assessments and trying to determine what they have to work with after birds fly into the engines. Both of them are out and Sullenberger calls the control tower to see if there's a landing strip he can get to while he still has momentum and air. The tower suggests either going back to LaGuardia or to Teterboro in New Jersey and he makes the decision to turn and return to New York. 


But, he doesn't have the altitude. With both engines gone, he is a heavy glider and altitude diminishes ever increasingly. Pretty soon, he's over New York tilting the plane to avoid skyscrapers, "deadsticking" it to minimize damage, but it is inevitable that he is going to hit one as he descends. And as alarms are screaming in the cockpit and "Terrain-Terrain-Terrain" monotonously blares over the speakers, he finally crashes into a low building in a fiery crash...

Sullenberger wakes up.

He is safe in his hotel room, but can't sleep.  It is the night after the ditching of his plane in the Hudson and he's having nightmares of what might have been, going through PTSD—as most of the crew and passengers did after the incident, (how could you not?). He calls Skiles in his hotel room; he's awake, too, and the two go off on a jog to try to work out the dreams and the memories that are becoming intertwined. It's the middle of the night, so it's the best time to do it...away from people. 

For Sullenberger—or "Sully" as everybody and their brother now calls him—is a hero. He is, at the very least, today's headline—taking a broken plane down in the Hudson without losing a single "soul" (as the air trade likes to call them) will tend to do that to a person. He can't walk out into the street without being mobbed by cameras and strobed by flashes. Questions are screamed at him from desperate reporters trying to get an angle on the story while it's "hot copy," and the experience of the attention and media overload might be a bit of a trauma in and of itself.  
"What just happened?"
People on the street stop and congratulate him. He has a free drink at every bar in town. Hell, the drink might even be named after him. Katie Couric wants an interview. Strangers congratulate him. Strangers hug him. That's all well and good. Weird...and uncomfortable, but okay.

But, inside his head, things aren't all blue skies and absolute ceiling. He's reliving the flight to the minutest detail, going over decision-points and alternatives, and each alteration ends in fiery disaster. He has long talks with Skiles and his wife, Lorraine (Laura Linney—her third film for Eastwood) on the phone, pouring over details. What could he have done different? What could he have done faster? His one take-away, that he clings to, is that no one died. People are hurt. People are suffering. But, no one on that doomed plane died.

It's probably good in the overall scheme, that he keeps worrying the details; the NTSB investigation is why he's being detained in New York. There will be briefings, questions and interrogations. To the public, the decision is over—"it's "The Miracle on the Hudson." But, there's a multi-million dollar plane sunk in the Hudson river and the airlines want to know what happened, the insurance companies are looking at the bottom line, and there will be lawsuits...oh, there will be lawsuits. The suits are in fear that all those lives saved will want money from them. So, fault must be found, and the investigation will find that fault. 

It all starts out civilly enough: good morning, hope you're okay, got a few questions...blah blah blah. And then, the dollars and cents comes into it. And a bombshell: seems that data indicates that one of the engines wasn't dead and Sullenberger might have been able to get it back going again if he had his head about him. And...simulations have been run given the parameters of the flight—the pilots in those simulations made it back to LaGuardia and landed safely. the Captain need never have ditched and the plane could have been salvageable.

Skiles and Sully are devastated by this news. The NTSB is looking for blame and the indication is that they're the ones who are going to take the fall. They're going to be thrown under the airport shuttle for the insurance companies. For both men, it will mean termination and punishment. It doesn't matter the outcome on the Hudson or how many lives were saved—or what the public perception is—Sullenberger and Skiles will be held accountable.

This starts another round of flashbacks and second-guessing, but now there's another element. Before, there was the assumption that nothing else could be done to maximize their chances. But, now with hindsight and digital replication—with all the facts and data at their disposal—there is evidence that,out of all the possibilities, the pilots might have chosen wrong. But, as it's noted in the NTSB hearing, the incident is "unprecedented." "Everything is 'unprecedented' until it happens for the first time." Sully remarks matter-of-factly. But, something about the accusation is starting to rankle him. "In the end, I'm going to be judged on two hundred eight seconds." His accuser is a computer that has all the data of the flight, but was never there. Second-guessing by humans is one thing. But second-guessing by computer? 


It puts the story into the territory of myth, of a John Henry-like competition between man and machine, like computer-chess or Watson "Jeopardy." The two have to defend their instinctual actions for something that's never happened before against a machine using the parameters of a past event—it comes prepared and programmed (it zigs when it's supposed to zig and zags when it's supposed to zag). It has no surprises programmed in, no alternative scenarios to explore, no questions, no doubts, and no instincts. Advantage: computer.

And that's how director Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki parse out the 208 seconds over 90 minutes. There are different levels of reality going on, all dissecting the same limited amount of time. That's the basis of a "based on a true story" film anyway, flashing back and looking behind, in a simulacrum of life, where the brain, when not tasked, goes into "Rewind", whether nostalgic or regretful (unless you're a presidential candidate). Eastwood doesn't do anything fancy—no special effects pixels are wasted on anything that doesn't simulate reality. But, at the same time, he has created a complex scenario out of a simple story that everybody already knows. At the same time, he shows the details we may not know, like the efforts of the rescue crews who were johnny-on-the-spot to pluck the crew and passengers out of the freezing Hudson. The film shows that the "one-man-miracle" was a group effort of disparate parts and makes one realize that, perhaps, the movie is called Sully for a different reason—as the definition of the word is "damage the purity or integrity of; defile."

Indeed.

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