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Movie Review: Sully


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Depicting one man’s competence and confidence with psychological depth, director Clint Eastwood (Jersey Boys, American Sniper, Gran Torino, Invictus) made another little character masterpiece with Sully, starring Tom Hanks as Captain Chesley Sullenberger.

Mr. Hanks has never been better and neither has his co-star, Aaron Eckhart (The Dark Knight, Thank You for Smoking, Love Happens) as the commercial airline pilot’s loyal first officer. Their camaraderie in and out of the cockpit seals a bond in this simple, powerful movie about the January 15, 2009, US Airways water landing that became known as “the miracle on the Hudson”.

That the Hudson River touchdown, which spared all lives on board, is an act of rational man, not a miracle, stabilizes the newest film by Warner Bros. and Mr. Eastwood. The movie’s real conflict is also manmade—it’s a galling aftermath initiated by the U.S. government. Captain Sullenberger, known as “Sully”, faces an outrageous inquisition in the hours that follow the harrowing, historic aviation disaster.

“Clear for takeoff” in voiceover is how the movie begins and the visceral, shocking story is depicted without gratuitousness, trivialization or triumphalism, all of which could be deadly to this delicate undertaking, which, at its core, is a badly needed shot of post-9/11 heroism.

The Islamic terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, hangs over New York City throughout the movie. The sight of a plunging, screaming commercial jet about to crash in New York City after 9/11 was not unprecedented—look up the mysterious and forgotten Nov. 12, 2001, American Airlines flight 587 crash in Queens—and Sully’s skillful actions briefly but solidly united the fracturing nation, which had tumbled in an economic collapse and elected a new president.

That context figures deftly into Sully, which folds the fundamental change including economic hardship into its leading character. But what’s distinctive about Sully—based on the airline captain’s own memoir—is its capacity to show that man at his best is both rational and whole.

By this I mean that, as usual in Clint Eastwood‘s recent pictures, the hero is a work in progress, neither one with feet of clay nor one with abs of steel and this is a key part of Sully‘s point, as the audience discovers in a quietly climactic scene. The culmination comes after a steady, solid buildup in the 95-minute movie, which does contain disturbing images which may be too harsh for some viewers. I think those scenes, which cannot be discussed without spoiling the plot, are utterly merited. They’re integral, especially given Sully‘s point that to be heroic is human. These scenes are part of a progression in one introverted man’s introspection as he tries to navigate the new American cultural landscape of celebrity, if not necessarily hero, worship, a downward economic trajectory and the fetishization of fame.

Famous and accomplished Tom Hanks (Bridge of Spies, Philadelphia, Apollo 13, Larry Crowne, The Da Vinci Code, Toy Story 3) portrays Chesley Sullenberger with poise and command. The role requires that he show a man in full, to paraphrase Tom Wolfe, who goes from a haunted self-examination in a steamy mirror, self-doubt and fear of being found out as a fraud to supreme confidence in his knowledge of reality and his own judgment. He’s a detective on his own case, putting New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in his proper place and stressing to Katie Couric the fact of his “whole life”, as against merely this particular part of his life, until he integrates the facts of his extraordinary, slow-handed, guided mastery in the cockpit of an Airbus crippled by a flock of birds.

This transformation occurs between the spine-chilling voices of stewardesses commanding passengers in unison like a chant or a prayer as the plane goes down and the familiarly soothing voice of NBC’s Brian Williams reporting on the incident. All of this is depicted in steps out of sequence while in order of Captain Sullenberger’s coming-to in a mind-numbing time in his life. Yet Mr. Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki never let the audience forget that it happens while this man is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder with not a single human from the airline or government offering to help. That no one takes care of strong, heroic men—including Eckhart’s character and a devastated air traffic controller—is an unmistakable aspect of this unforgettable film.

As he was in Spotlight and Stephen King’s The Stand, actor Jamey Sheridan as what amounts to the main villain, an evasive government bureaucrat that won’t look Sully in the eye when it counts, delivers a slippery contrast to the hero. Laura Linney (Mr. Holmes, Kinsey, Frasier) as the wife at home fits the role that drives Sully‘s subtext that the hero in today’s world is cast out by dominant forces on his own. The rest of the actors are fine, too, with Molly Hagan (Shootdown, The Lucky Ones, Some Kind of Wonderful) especially good as stewardess Doreen and Anna Gunn (TV’s Portlandia, Breaking Bad) shining as a government worker with a conscience.

Like next week’s opener, Oliver Stone’s Snowden, Clint Eastwood’s Sully focuses on the much-maligned lone, true life white male as a hero in Obama’s America; a sensitive, intelligent individual of ability breaking rules to trust instead his own judgment even when it means going against the state, in particular the Obama administration.

Sully fills out Sully’s cinematic, arresting story with multiple heroes—New York City policemen who follow baseball, rescue divers and the sure-handed captain of a boat named after Thomas Jefferson—including the sterling flight 1549 crew of Eckhart’s Jeff Skiles and a band of heroic stewardesses and it welds the cold, hard facts of Sully’s story to the unspoken pain over unavenged mass murder on 9/11 with an image of a jet screaming across Manhattan’s skies.

“A pilot never stops acquiring knowledge,” Sully’s father tells the boy in a flashback with a biplane in a piece of advice that the youth carries into a fighter jet. The power of this top virtue, rationality, leads the wounded, self-searching Chesley Sullenberger—with his partner at his side—to recover the power of his productiveness and pride. In letting Sully be seen this way on screen, thanks to Tom Hanks, in his most challenging role since Philadelphia, Mr. Eastwood puts a 21st century hero in a clarifying and rational context.

TV Review: TWA Flight 800

TWA 800 wreckageEver since I first wrote an essay about my experiences with TWA Flight 800 for the Wall Street Journal in 1997, which elicited a stern response in a letter to the editor from the chairman of the government’s national transportation bureaucracy, the NTSB, I have followed the various investigations, conspiracy theories and concerns about the nation’s greatest unsolved commercial aviation mystery, the crash of TWA 800, which happened 17 years ago today. A new television documentary adds to the body of evidence.

The 90-minute program, titled TWA Flight 800, airs tonight at 8 pm ET on an obscure cable TV channel called EPIX (co-owned by Paramount’s Viacom, Lionsgate and MGM). Having seen an advance preview, I can say that it’s not entirely objective, it’s not a good (let alone great) film or documentary and there are a few structural issues with the documentary, which is co-produced by an amateur sleuth with whom I was once acquainted named Tom Stalcup. Tom was a young physics student in Florida when we both participated in an independent investigative group years ago. I know him to be a serious investigator. His film, whatever its drawbacks, is more convincing than anything the government has claimed about the plane crash, in which 230 lives were lost.

I remember the day well, as I have written in numerous newspaper articles from the Journal essay to my recent remembrance in a suburban Chicago newspaper. The EPIX program does not reconstruct the day’s events or attempt any type of logical progression that would support a proper narrative structure, which is what prevents it from being a fully persuasive film for a general audience. Instead, Stalcup, who is never properly introduced, despite appearing on camera, presents numerous aviation and former government investigators, as well as dozens of eyewitnesses, in a cluster of firsthand accounts that seriously undermine the government’s investigation, cast doubt on the Clinton administration’s handling of the crash and raise several new and disturbing problems with the government’s version of the facts. TWA Flight 800 also simulates, quite convincingly, what really happened to the Boeing 747.

Stalcup and those who worked on the investigation postulate that the plane was brought down by a series of three projectiles, such as missiles, rockets or some sort of military ordnance, that exploded outside the aircraft.

From a nearby Olympic Airways pilot who witnessed the explosion, who says he saw a “light coming out of the sea”, to several whistleblowers, witnesses and forensics experts, the film is loaded with clear, logical presentations of facts, many in sequenced segments. Someone who worked on the investigation says the FBI was “almost abusive”. Other charges include tampering with evidence, deliberately re-tagging plane fragments to be identified as being found in a different part of the debris field, intimidation and threats by the government against eyewitnesses, and what this team regards as the “smoking gun” of evidence that the crash was caused by an exterior explosion near the plane that crippled its capacity to function; a radar track moving at a speed of Mach 4. If it all sounds complicated, it is, which is why TWA Flight 800 is best consumed by aviation, forensics, explosives, medical and metallurgy experts.

But the cable TV program is must viewing for an intelligent and informed general audience currently threatened by the rise of a government that inverts foreign and domestic Islamic enemy threats and increases total government control over our lives.

“Every time there was a problem, it was ignored [by leading government investigators]”, one whistleblower says in tonight’s documentary. “Objectivity went out the window,” says another. Their cumulative credentials appear to be impeccable; they represent nearly every aspect of the crash and subsequent investigation, which concluded very calculatedly, that an explosion originated in the center fuel tank, a finding which is not an identification of the cause of the crash.

Stalcup and company shoot down that assertion, too, showing why they believe that the evidence shows that the explosion originated outside the aircraft and could not possibly have originated in the center fuel tank. Time and again, this complex presentation of facts and abstractions results in raising doubt. The government’s claims that hundreds of witness testimonies to missile trajectories, streaks of light and plumes of smoke amount to “mass misperception” (seriously) are more preposterous in retrospect than they were in the 1990s. The CIA’s animation video is labeled by numerous experts as ludicrous; it is thoroughly discredited.

Why believe this bunch? It’s fine if after watching this program you don’t, according to Stalcup, whom I recall as a single-minded graduate student. Rejecting faith, he responds, when asked: “I don’t want people to believe me. I want them to look at everything and see what it says.” He proceeds to depict, present and display countless assertions – too many and without proper integration or contrasting information – about key government investigation discrepancies, splatter patterns on the wing, NASA testing wreckage for nitrates (with positive results) and media bias in favor of the government’s distorted version of the facts, especially by NBC News. Watching TWA Flight 800 can be a gruesome experience – photos of twisted cadavers are displayed – but the program is compelling.

“We will know what happened to that airplane,” the government’s lead investigator, James Kallstrom, who has publicly denounced the TV program, said after the crash. TWA Flight 800 proves beyond a reasonable doubt that, as of this writing, he was wrong and it strongly implies that he lied or was ordered to lie. Given everything that’s happened since July 17, 1996 – the worst attack in U.S. history, by religious fundamentalists on 9/11 using airplanes as weapons and widespread government dishonesty, conspiracy and corruption – it is impossible to ignore this new and potentially crucial part of the investigation.

On one hand we have a government that lies as it insidiously expands into a fascist state that was led at the time by a pathological liar whose vice-president, Al Gore, led a government commission on the TWA 800 disaster and is known for chronic and constant lies and distortions about the climate and the result is a $40 million, four-year investigation that failed to identify the cause of the worst plane crash in U.S. history. On the other hand we have experts in medicine, aviation, military ordnance, explosions, crashes, transportation safety and testing and engineering – besides eyewitnesses – who claim the government fouled up, failed, lied or covered up. The upshot of Stalcup’s theory and program, which observes that no witness was ever allowed to testify, is that he wants the government to re-open its investigation. Even incompetent Kallstrom accepts that proposition. But it is a mistake to keep taking the word of those who work in a government with no credibility at all on almost any subject.

As Stalcup puts it, in recapping the impetus for what turned a Sunshine state physics student into a crusader for truth, justice and what amounts to a more objective approach: “it seemed odd to me that [the government] was so focussed on what [the cause] was not – rather than what it was.”

Anyone who wants to know what caused the crash of TWA 800 should watch this program and decide for himself.