Review: “Sully” (2016)

“Sully” is a film about how two kinds of people respond to immense pressure and impending doom. The heroes—a copilot, stewardesses, the coast guard, and of course, an elderly captain—all respond with calm, clear headed thinking, decisiveness, and courage. The villains, by contrast, respond with paranoia and panic. We don’t normally think of these competing characteristic as what “heroes” do as opposed to “villains”; but perhaps Clint Eastwood’s accomplishment here is to show us just how much can depend on how average, everyday people choose to react. Sometimes, it’s even the difference between heroism and manslaughter.

You know the story. In the stinging frost of a January day in 2009, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (played by Tom Hanks) landed his U.S. Air commercial jet on the Hudson river. All 155 passengers survived, the day was called “the miracle on the Hudson,” and Sully was deemed a hero of impossible skill and supernatural intuition. In the doldrums of the economic meltdown, Sully’s story was more than a miracle; it was a cultural moment, a reminder (especially in New York) that airplanes don’t always explode when they fall, and that hope could still be rewarded.

In “Sully,” the only one to miss this memo is Sully himself. The film opens with Sully’s plane crashing into the Manhattan skyline and erupting in a fireball that evokes memories of 15 years ago. This is, of course, a dream; we learn quickly that Sully’s nightmare comes from his sense of self-doubt and anxiety over his action on that day. Though he saved lives, the National Transportation Safety Board believes he could have landed at a nearby airport instead of in the river (or as one character later clarifies, “on” the river). Thus, an insurance company and an airline now have a financial stake in whether Sully unnecessarily endangered the passengers he somehow rescued.

It defies logic that a pilot who saved lives on an airliner without either engine could be forced to retire as a result. Throughout “Sully” I kept thinking how easily Eastwood could have made this film into an infuriating jeremiad against bureaucrats and insurance corporations. Wisely, he did not, but still.

The film’s drama centers on the investigation that the NTSB carries out, and whether they will determine that Sully was indeed at fault. For his part, Sully resents his new celebrity, and hallucinates reporters who decry him and more exploding planes. It’s obvious that this is an honorable man of duty. His copilot (Aaron Eckhart) showers praise on him, his wife (Laura Linney) believes in him, but Sully cannot rest if he doesn’t know for sure that he did the right thing. The election cycle of 2016 is desperately short of people like this, and we need to be reminded often that they’re out there.

“Sully” has an undeniably authentic feel. The crash sequence isn’t as technically masterful as, say, the one Robert Zemeckis achieved in Flight, but it is staged and photographed well. One thing Eastwood captures is the crucial knowledge and decisiveness of the flight crew during the chaos of the un-boarding. There’s no doubt in my mind that a lesser prepared team would have lost some lives during the frigid wait for rescue. These weren’t
marines or professional disaster handlers. They were flight attendants and copilots and stewardesses, with the same fear for themselves that everyone onboard had. Yet they preserved life.

Hanks is a good choice as Sullenberger. The role demands little of him, but that’s OK, because we are not meant to marvel at how great a human being Sullenberger is but at how ordinary. Laura Linney gives the film’s best performance as Sullenberger’s wife; the two never appear in the same shot, but their affection is evident.

Sully is a flawed movie. The script seems unsure if it wants to delve into Sullenberger’s past and psychology. There are a couple flashback sequences that show his love of flying and his remarkable instincts, but these scenes feel like they would be better in a different cut of the movie. There’s also a tactical mistake in editing that gives us what is essentially the exact same sequence twice. Given the scene’s relative lack of mystery, this is a test of patience rather than a tension builder.

Quibbles aside, “Sully” is a worthy documentation of a day that will be long remembered, if not by American culture, then certainly by 155 living, thankful passengers. The film reminded me of the greatness people are capable of when they refuse to panic, and simply do their job. We need more of that, especially now.

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Movie Review: “Captain America: Civil War” (2016)

The best superhero film of the millennium (thus far) is Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. It’s a brooding masterpiece, drenched in noir and teeming with the questions of life that we face every day. That its hero is a comic book warrior is almost irrelevant; it is a film rooted firmly in the moral battles of real life.

Captain America: Civil War is not as good as The Dark Knight, but it is closer than anything we’ve seen since 2008. It’s Marvel’s masterpiece and one of the best films of the year.

Surprised? Me too.

As some of you will know, I am one of those who believe that the superhero genre’s (especially the superhero sequel genre) dominance right now is a weakness and not a strength of the film industry. I’ve said before that the way franchises have consumed the movie market tends toward lower quality from studios and less risk tasking from filmmakers. I still believe that. I still believe that on any given day a 6th installment of a film series—especially a comic book one—is probably designed to help its audience expect less from a film.

But the great thing about movies is that sometimes, it all just falls into place. Sometimes your expectations and carefully thought out analyses get broadsided by a great story, compelling characters and bold, smart filmmakers. What’s great about movies is that sometimes you get one like Captain America: Civil War.

Civil War builds extensively on the events of Captain America: Winter Soldier. A few years ago it was probably easy for someone who had never seen an Avengers movie to jump right into the latest installment. Not anymore. If you don’t know at least the basic universe and events of the previous movies there’s practically nothing to grab onto here. None of the characters are “introduced” (save for two new superheroes, a familiar web-slinger and a prowling prince) and most of the action is thematically anchored in the past. This makes for an unusually intelligent and perceptive script, but a pre-movie refresher is mandatory.

Do I need to describe the plot? A quick glance of the trailer would at least explain the film’s title to you. The most important thing to know is that at the heart of Civil War is a question that haunts not just the Avengers but every superhero story I’ve ever heard: What about the humans who are in those buildings that always blow up? What about the faceless, nameless average folks who are not hero, villain, or rescued? Most movies in this genre either seem to pretend that these people don’t exist (the amount of vacant real estate in New York City is astonishing) or pretend that they can somehow withstand being caught in the middle of supernatural apocalypse. Civil War drops both these illusions. Like Nolan’s Dark Knight, Civil War uses the mythology of the superhero to ask moral questions of its characters, and its audience.

Should those trying to save life care about “collateral damage”? Is the power to intervene for good always tempered by the potential to do harm? Who and what determines innocence? This is normally the stuff of Oliver Stone war pictures, not comic book adventures. Here is that rarity: a superhero film willing to question itself, to not drown out thought in a torrent of CGI destruction.

As Civil War opens, the powers that be believe that the Avengers, heretofore an independent, apolitical group of an “enhanced” warriors, need governmental oversight. The debate amongst the heroes centers on whether their power to defend life is helped or hindered by submission to political bureaucracy. Some of the Avengers agree with Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) that the lost lives of innocents demands that the heroes surrender some of their autonomy; others side with Captain America (Chris Evans) that such submission will only handcuff their abilities.

This may sound like another edition of the “Hero or vigilante” trope so common in this genre. But where this theme is often treated with either glib humor (think Sam Rami’s Spider-Man trilogy) or a kind of meandering sanctimony (think Man of Steel), Civil War takes it seriously and asks the audience to as well. An early encounter between Tony Stark and the mother of a young man killed in one of the Avengers’ battles is a deeply affecting and uncomfortably realistic sequence. There’s a maturity and confidence in this writing that elevates Civil War far above the level of live action cartoon. Children will still delight in these heroes, but adults will leave thinking more seriously about a superhero’s world than perhaps they have in a while.

One thing I noticed about Civil War is that its action sequences seem more grounded and physical. I’ve seen a lot of Marvel films where the heroes defy the laws of physics in a way that doesn’t feel thrilling. Here the visual effects seem to have more humanity; the biff-bam-pow spirit of the comics is more evident than the flawlessly pixelated violence of video games. This too was true of Nolan’s Batman films (a very different sort of comic book film, of course). Except for some inexplicably jittery photography in the movie’s very first battle, Civil War features some of the best superhero battling I’ve seen in years.

Though the title says this should be Captain America’s film, it’s really another volume for the Avengers as a whole. That’s good news because Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans together are far and away the best asset this franchise has. Their rivalry is the soul of Civil War. Marvel deserves credit for not turning its cast into human placeholders for green screen, which would rob us of the serious talent on display here. The two new heroes are particularly well picked, and Martin Freeman has a great (though short) time as a government agent.

Not just another episode of digital playtime, Civil War offers the superhero genre humanity, thoughtfulness, and a higher plane of excitement than it has seen in a while. It all works, from the intelligent and even surprising screenplay by Stephen McFeely and Chris Markus, to Joe and Anthony Russo’s confident direction. If future comic book films will learn the lessons in craft found in this movie, our death-by-nostalgia Hollywood may yet have a fighting chance.



Movie Review: “The Jungle Book” (2016)

There’s a really good chance that when you think of classic Disney animated pictures, you don’t think of The Jungle Book. Released in 1967 to positive reviews and solid box office numbers, Walt Disney’s final production before his death nevertheless hasn’t quite found a way to the cultural pantheon occupied by films like Cinderella, Pinocchio, or even Beauty and the Beast. We could probably come up with several explanations for this, but here’s the best I can do: Surrounded by its genre’s stories of magic, The Jungle Book is a story of survival. There’s humor, cheer, and fun songs, of course, but the soul of the tale is as dark as the pitiless wild Mowgli inhabits.

It’s that quality that made the movie an obvious candidate for a remake. That’s the best way to understand Jon Favreau’s marvelous offering. It’s neither sequel nor reimagining, but an update, a technologically dazzling and thematically richer version of the film everyone seems to have seen and so few seem to really remember.

The script, by Justin Marks, takes almost no meaningful deviations from that of the animated movie, with two exceptions. One of those I cannot describe without giving away a key part of the ending. The other change involves the wolf pack that adopted Mowgli, which plays a much larger role here. Mowgli thinks of himself as a wolf, and though his adopted canine parents know better, they teach, protect, and love Mowgli as if he is one. But the mob boss-like tiger Shere Khan threatens a murderous rampage unless the boy—who will grow up, Khan says, to build fire and destroy the jungle—is surrendered to him. Mowgli flees the pack, and his adventure in a vast, untamed wilderness begins.

Marks’s script improves on several aspects of the animated one, but the most rewarding improvement is thematic. The animated Mowgli was petulant, defiant and largely devoid of any psychological intrigue. Here Mowgli wants to know where he belongs. The snake Kaa puts Mowgli in a trance by showing him the real story of his jungle orphanage, and Mowgli continually has to remind himself not to use his “tricks” –his human ability to reason and invent–for it is those abilities that are incomprehensible to the wild animals he lives with. Identity is a key theme in Disney’s filmography, and it would have been easy for Marks and Favreau to browbeat their movie into a cliché. Instead, they’ve given us a subtle and rich narrative of belonging. “You can’t fight like a wolf because you’re not a wolf,” a character tells Mowgli in a key moment. “Fight like a man.”

This is, I think, closer to the heart of Rudyard Kipling than what was accomplished in 1967. Consider his classic poem “If,” which promises the reader that the reward for courageous virtue (“If you can keep your head when all about you // Are losing theirs and blaming it on you”) is maturity (“What’s more // You’ll be a man, my son”). Torn between what seems right (living with the wolves) and what seems inevitable (life at the man village), Mowgli finds peace with Baloo the bear, who gives him freedom to be human around him. This tale isn’t about becoming less of an animal but becoming more of a man, signaled by Mowgli’s (and the jungle’s) realization that love and sacrifice are stronger than DNA. Mowgli’s victory is, finally, in becoming who he is. Kipling, a Christian, did not intend The Jungle Book to be religious allegory, but it’s impossible to ignore the imagery here.

All of this is made vivid in Favreau’s vision. The jungle itself is less clear. Favreau and his photographer, Bill Pope (who also shot the Matrix films), have created a twisted and dense forest, layered in thick fog and opaque textures. It’s a visually enthralling world that serves its mysterious story better than the bright shapes of cell-shade animation.

But as good as the jungle itself looks, it’s no rival for the film’s digital animals. I can honestly testify, dear reader, that at multiple times during The Jungle Book, I could not tell whether the animals whose lips were giving dialogue were live creatures or CGI images. IMDB informs me that an enormous group of people were involved in the visual effects of this film, and I believe it. The interaction between the young actor Neel Sethi and his digital companions is stunningly gorgeous, an achievement magnified by the very wise decision to make the animals look like authentic species rather than faux-cartoons. The best compliment I can think to pay this film’s visual triumph may be this: It looks exactly like how a new reader of Kipling’s story would imagine it.

As for voice-talent, we might as well just do a Hollywood roll-call. Bill Murray (Baloo the bear), Ben Kingsley (Bagheera the panther), Christopher Walken (King Louie the ape), Scarlett Johanssen (Kaa the serpent), and Lupita Nyong’o (Raksha the she-wolf) are all delights. But the best turn is from Idris Elba, whose deviously sultry Shere Khan somehow manages to stand toe to toe with George Sanders’ timeless performance.

All the parts fall into place for Disney on this one. Favreau has reignited Kipling’s tale with soul and spectacle, and has justified, at least for a moment, Hollywood’s imagination stagnation. The Jungle Book’s technological achievement is serious, and will almost certainly trigger a deluge of golden-era remakes (my fear is that Disney could never pass up the chance to redo The Lion King with such tools). But let us lay that aside for now, and admire such a handsome and satisfying film.

Walt Disney Pictures presents a Jon Favreau film. Written by Justin Marks. Based on the book by Rudyard Kipling. 110 minutes. PG.