When we saw Sully the other night, there were a lot of grey hairs in the audience – apparently, when you make a film for grownups, they show up to watch it.
It helps that Tom Hanks has been doing a lot of publicity. When he appeared on Jimmy Kimmel, he did a great interview, including an anecdote about what it’s like to work with director Clint Eastwood. “He treats actors like horses,” said Hanks.
Then he explained. Years ago, when Eastwood was a young actor playing Rowdy Yates on the western series Rawhide (quick, old people like me: Can you still sing the theme song?), they would have different directors for each episode. (It’s one of the oddities of television that the writers remain the same and pretty much control the show, while directors are usually brought in for one episode at a time.)
These directors came from the make-a-splash school of directing. There was a huge build-up at the start of each scene. Roll camera! Rolling! Sound! Speed! Slate! And then, as the absolute climax of everything, the director’s shout of “Action!”
Pure ego, of course. When the director shouts, the actors are rarely very far away; they could probably get the idea from a murmur or a gesture. But it’s the director’s moment to assert his importance.
The problem for the cast of Rawhide was that they were often mounted on horseback. There they were, all ready to ride in and do the scene – but all the hoopla, culminating in the bellowed “Action!” would spook the horses. Then it would take a minute or two to calm them down before they could begin the scene. Everybody was rattled by then, including the actors. It forced many retakes.
So Eastwood never does all that rigmarole. Instead, things are started in near silence. A gesture gets the cameras rolling and the sound up to speed. When it’s time for the actors to start, you know, acting, Eastwood usually murmurs, “Go” or “Go ahead.” Everything is calm.
There weren’t any horses in Sully. But Eastwood’s low-impact directing style is designed to avoid spooking them anyway – allowing the actors to keep their minds on the scene, and not be distracted by how important the director is.
After a great interview between Kimmel and Hanks, you’d think it would have been over. But no. Kimmel had a surprise for Hanks.
We thought the surprise was done when the real-life Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger came onstage and joined the conversation. It really was kind of thrilling. We all knew that Sullenberger was credited by everyone concerned with saving the lives of all the passengers and crew during that fateful incident in 2009 when his passenger jet was struck by a flock of geese and lost both engines.
Without any realistic chance of getting to any airport at a high enough altitude to land safely, Sullenberger landed the plane on the Hudson River, and did it so gently that there were very few injuries; even the babies that were held in someone’s arms did not fly across the cabin upon impact. In other words, Sully managed to land a big old jet on the river more gently than your average low-speed car crash. The airplane didn’t even yaw to one side or the other; it was a straight-on water landing.
Sure, he was doing his job: making judgments about what actions to take, and then carrying out those decisions flawlessly. Everyone else did so as well, but despite Sullenberger’s insistence that it was a group achievement, everybody else says that if Sully hadn’t been there, the outcome would have been completely different.
And Sullenberger now wears his pin as an honorary member of the professional association of waterplane pilots – though of course his passenger jet was not supposed to be a waterplane at all.
But they still weren’t done. Because the real surprise was that Kimmel’s people had created a fake movie trailer for a non-existent film about Tom Hanks’ life – with Chesley Sullenberger, in a bad dark-brown wig, playing Tom Hanks.
Not just Hanks as he appeared in Sully, but Hanks many past roles. We saw Sully doing Hanks playing Forrest Gump on that park bench; we saw him at award shows. And in a delightful display of generosity and good humor, Peter Scolari came on to play himself, harking back to the early 1980s, when Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari appeared in the cross-dressing TV series Bosom Buddies.
The surprise was that Sully not only wasn’t awful at playing Tom Hanks playing lots of different characters – he was actually pretty good. The fake trailer was very, very funny, and at the end of it you realized that Sullenberger, like Hanks, does not take himself too seriously. He’s willing to be a goof.
And he’s still the hero of that Hudson River landing.
Before seeing the movie, I read several reviews that complained that since everybody knew the outcome of the event, what was the point of making a movie about it?
This is, of course, a stupid comment. No movie can become a real hit unless people come back to see it again. So good movies are always watched by audiences that know the ending.
Movies made from books depend on the books’ readers to come see the film. Presumably, they know the ending.
We know who won all the past wars, yet we still have war movies. We know from the first glance between hero and heroine that the romance movie will end with them together, yet we still have romantic movies. We know from the moment the body is discovered in a mystery that we will see the murderer discovered and brought to some kind of justice, or nobody would have paid to have the movie made.
This attitude that it “wrecks everything” to know the ending is completely asinine. I’m sick of people who don’t bother to come to the movie on opening day demanding that other people not talk about the ending. Or anything else, because that would be a “spoiler.”
Live with it. We talk about movies, and it doesn’t hurt anybody’s viewing pleasure. Hamlet and practically the whole cast is dead at the end of Hamlet. Romeo and Juliet both kill themselves at the end of their play – and yet we still go see it. People watch Godfather and Godfather II and Rocky and Pride and Prejudice, and we attend remakes of movies that we’ve already watched in other incarnations, and there are no surprises.
That’s because the audience doesn’t come blindly to the theater. We aren’t led in blindfolded. We saw the trailers, which usually give away the entire story. And we want them to give away the story so we’ll have a good idea of whether we’re going to enjoy the movie.
But as we watch the movie, we watch as if we only knew what the characters know. We know that Macaulay Culkin is going to be stung to death by bees near the end of My Girl (1991), but we still feel horrible suspense as we wait for the awful moment to arrive. (That was before the religion of avoiding spoilers, so almost everybody knew.)
In fact, I believe that we feel more suspense when we know what’s coming. It was a joke in How I Met Your Mother, when Neil Patrick Harris would interrupt his own comments just before the last word, saying, “Wait for it …” and than bam! The lame punch line arrived, and we laughed.
Well, that’s how we watch movies when we already know the outcome, but the characters don’t. Wait for it … wait for it …
The screenplay, by Todd Komarnicki, is superb. It is not a simple retelling of the story of the Hudson River landing. Instead, the story is built around the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation and hearings about the incident, and – as is perfectly proper – they ask Sully and everybody else involved all the tough questions.
They also perform simulations – by computer and with real pilots – to second-guess every decision Sully made. If they find that his mistakes were the cause of the incident, then – even though not one soul was lost – Sully would be dismissed as a pilot, lose his pension and never fly commercially again.
So his livelihood, and his honor, are on the line, and that’s what gives the story its structure. Guess what: Most people don’t know, coming into the theater, what the outcome of that investigation will be, or on what evidence they’ll come to it.
Let me assure you, that story is a gripping one, and there’s no lack of suspense.
But interlaced with that story, we get plenty of footage of alternate versions of what could have happened to the plane if Sully had not done what he did. We see Sully’s nightmares of the plane trying to overfly Manhattan, only to lose altitude and crash into buildings. We see speculative versions – including the simulations – in which the plane is landed at airports, and in which it tries but fails to reach them.
We even get glimpses of what actually happened.
Yet when we finally get the full version – rather late in the movie – of the whole incident from takeoff to the final count of survivors, it is one of the more suspenseful action sequences in the history of film, precisely because we all knew what was going to happen, yet we knew that the people flying that plane did not know.
Some whiny critics have complained that we barely get to know any of the passengers. Well, guess what: In the real world, when we fly in airplanes we barely get to know any of our fellow passengers. In this movie, we didn’t waste time on pointless backstories; we found out who they were by how they acted. With any luck, we’ll never find out how our fellow passengers on real-life flights would act in a crisis, because we all hope to have no crises on board airplanes.
Moment by moment, it feels real … and terrifying. The most chilling and powerful sequence in the movie is when the flight attendants, having strapped themselves in at the last minute, chant “Brace! Brace! Brace!” repeatedly reminding the passengers to stay right where they are and not do anything but brace for impact.
That chant is a brilliant safety move, because it gets inside your head and keeps you from thinking about anything that might cause you to move out of that braced position. It’s also a brilliant cinematic moment, because not until then does the upcoming incident feel completely real – to us or to the passengers.
The aftermath is just as exciting, especially because we don’t know how everybody got saved. After all, airplanes don’t stay afloat all that long on the water; you don’t break out a bunch of oars and paddle the plane to shore. The passengers in those emergency exit rows did their jobs – out popped the windows, and then they led the way onto the wing.
The rubber rafts deployed, some immediately, some after a bit of a lag, but they didn’t hold all the passengers. Some remained on the wings as the bitterly cold January water rose slowly up their ankles and calves.
If the passengers had lost control of themselves, if they had not behaved very, very well, if there had been jostling and selfishness, lives would have been lost. They owe their lives to Sully and the crew and the rescuers – but they also owe their lives to each other.
Inside the plane, Sully and co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) walked the watery aisles to make sure everybody was out before they themselves made their way out of the plane.
What was remarkable was the ferryboat crews, not trained for disaster relief (though they have drills for what to do when somebody falls overboard), who immediately rerouted their ferries to approach the airplane. They were used to piloting their boats on the river, so that they expertly matched the downstream drift of the floating airplane exactly the way they would dock at a pier. Then they assisted as the passengers clambered up the ladders or handed helpless people up to them.
It took a little longer for the official rescue crews to arrive, including a helicopter with divers to save a woman who was in the water with only one arm looped through a life preserver.
One male passenger, believing himself to be a strong swimmer and underestimating the effect of ice-cold water on even the best swimmers, tried to swim to shore, which looked deceptively close. He realized his mistake in time to turn back, to be rescued along with other passengers, though nobody had come closer to death than he did.
And we share Sully’s agony as he waits for the rescue managers to make a full count of survivors. Did they save them all, or did they lose one, or two, or more?
Yes, we know that they got everybody. We know that. But Sullenberger did not, and it’s his anxiety that we feel. Outwardly calm, we can feel Sully’s dread because the script is perfect, the directing is perfect, and above all, Tom Hanks’ acting is perfect.
At the end, we are treated to some genuine footage of real events in the aftermath – passengers thanking Sully and the rest of the crew, family members rejoicing and weeping over how close they had come to losing people that they loved.
One of my favorite moments is when Laura Linney, as Sully’s wife, Lorraine, talks to him on the phone, long after she knows that he’s safe, and emotionally tells him, It only just sank in that you were also on that plane, and you could have died. Because Sully had been so calm and in charge, it was easy to overlook the fact that any mistake would have killed both pilots, too.
I think Sully is a great movie. The landing and rescue sequences aren’t elaborated like the sinking of the Titanic in James Cameron’s movie – and believe me, that sequence is brilliant – because simplicity is far more effective in telling this story. But this makes the movie relatively brief (96 minutes) and eminently rewatchable.
There are no villains in this film. It’s about good people doing good.
The investigators for the NTSB are doing their jobs, and doing them well. They aren’t out to prove any particular outcome; they’re seeking the truth. But that doesn’t mean that the proceedings aren’t sometimes adversarial. Still, it’s clear all along that they would be happy if they could prove that all of Sully’s decisions were reasonable, that the whole situation was not caused by human error.
Should you see Sully? Grownups already know: This is a great story, a bright and optimistic story, by the end. We who have lived through enough pain in our real lives appreciate a film that, despite dark and frightening moments, ends with a truthful happy outcome.
But I also urge younger viewers to come and see Sully, to realize that an affirmative movie can be brilliantly written, acted and shot.
If you wait till it’s out on cable (or whatever medium you use for private viewing), though, you won’t be disappointed. Start watching anywhere, and you won’t be content till you’ve seen the whole thing. One of the best movies of the year so far.
Even though we know the ending from the start.
I’ve introduced a lot of people to the fine chocolates offered by Loco for Coco, at 1616-G Battleground Ave., in Dover Square (just one parking lot down from Baskin-Robbins).
I consider this to have been a public service, but it serves me, too: The more of you who shop at Loco for Coco, the better my chances of being able to continue to buy my favorite chocolates there for years to come.
The story of my life as a consumer has been: If I discover something wonderful, for one reason or other it is doomed. For instance, Evolution Cold-Pressed Orange Juice, the best commercial orange juice ever, is no longer on the shelves at Earth Fare. The stock clerk told me that it was discontinued – either by Earth Fare’s corporate offices, or perhaps by Starbucks, which now owns Evolution Fresh, and which may be rationing a limited supply. Whole Foods in Lynnwood, Washington, still has it. But I don’t.
Wallaby brand yogurt lost all its shelf space to the detestable Greek style yogurts that are all the rage – and now Wallaby itself is converting over to selling those inedible lumps of nastiness that show why Greece is no longer the center of civilization.
Great Harvest Bread Company is gone from Greensboro. We have found pretty good breads to replace it ╨ but I’m not going to tell you what they are, because I don’t want them to disappear from the stores where we buy them.
Somehow, though, Loco for Coco has bucked the trend and remains open after several years and one change of ownership. Not only that, but the owners are audacious enough to offer new items from time to time.
One of my favorites is a series of decorative paper boxes and baskets, just the right size for a couple of truffles – or more. Since they’re handmade by a local artist, you can order just what you want for special occasions. This summer, I had placed a special order of M&M’s online, imprinted with the names of all our grandchildren. From Loco for Coco, I ordered a set of paper teacups and a teapot, which we took to the beach. The cups worked very well, and the paper teapot was sturdy enough to pour out M&M’s to refill the cups. It was way cool.
Now, however, Loco for Coco is bringing out a new product that will not disappear – because I won’t be buying any. My wife is strongly allergic to fresh strawberries, you see, and that’s what Loco for Coco will be offering: fresh organic strawberries dipped in chocolate.
The official press release says: “Loco for Coco Gourmet Chocolates is offering custom-ordered all-organic chocolate dipped strawberries for sale, starting immediately.
“Customers can call or email orders for one or more dozen strawberries by 4:00 pm one day in advance. Orders can then be picked up from noon to 6:00 pm the next day. Delivery is also offered inside the city of Greensboro for a $7.00 fee.
“All strawberries will be organic, fresh (never frozen), prepared locally and a large standard size
“Guittard organic chocolate will be used for dipping. Guittard is a century-and-a-half old fifth generation family business based in the San Francisco Bay Area. They are the chocolate providers for many of the premier chocolate makers in the U.S.
“Dipped strawberries will be sold only by the dozen, in a handsome Loco for Coco gift box, with choice of ribbon. Cost will be $29.75 a dozen (plus tax).
“Customization in the near future will include toppings, dipping patterns, and larger quantities.
“Call Susan or Spencer Andrews at 336-333-0029 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for further information.” Let me add that for obvious reasons, shipping to remote locations is impossible.
For once, I’m not competing with you for the product I’m reviewing. This is a superb chocolate treat, but because of the fresh fruit, I think it also counts as a salad. Go for it!
And don’t forget the other wonderful chocolate treats available at Loco for Coco – half-dipped mints, Barkeaters salted chocolate, an array of fine truffles, cashew and pecan turtles, non-pareils (as soon as it’s cool enough to ship them), Lake Champlain filled chocolate bars, baking chocolate, drinking chocolate and many other items.
The book Vital Friends, by Tom Rath, won’t tell you anything you haven’t known instinctively for most of your life: Human beings need strong friendships in order to be happy.
Even introverts need friends – they just don’t need them every moment. And even people in good marriages need other friends besides their spouse, because no one person can supply you with everything you need from your friends.
I listened to Vital Friends as downloaded from Audible.com, with narration by the author, who is surprisingly good. The whole thing is only two-and-a-half hours long.
Since you already know that friends are important and valuable, perhaps you don’t think you need a book to tell you that.
But I found that I enjoyed having the author tell me why good friends can make such a difference in our lives. I think you might enjoy it too.