Friday, October 07, 2016

Flight of fancy? On Clint Eastwood's Sully and the art of being undramatically dramatic

[From my Mint Lounge column]

Ever since I watched Clint Eastwood’s Sully – about the aftermath of the successful landing of a damaged commercial aircraft on the Hudson river in January 2009 – I have been thinking about the film’s last shot, or, to be more exact, its closing seconds. Captain Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) and First Officer Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) have just been cleared of allegations of pilot error at a public hearing; the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has acknowledged that “Sully” did the only pragmatic thing he could have done under the circumstances. The air in a crowded, once-adversarial room is starting to clear, hard talk is replaced by banter. Is there anything you would have done differently that day, someone conversationally asks the First Officer, and the square-jawed Skiles replies, “I would’ve done it in July.”

The little joke lightens the tension and makes everyone smile. And just like that, the screen fades to black.

What an extraordinary decision it was to close the film like this. If the term in medias res describes a beginning that doesn’t quite feel like a beginning – an opening paragraph or scene where the reader or viewer has the unsettling impression of being parachute-dropped right in the middle of the story, not having been allowed to settle in – here is an example of an ending that has a comparable effect. At first, when the closing credits began, I was taken aback. Conditioned by years of film-watching, I had been expecting at least a musical cue of some sort.

But then I realized what an apt, unfussy finish this was to a film about a self-effacing professional who had simply done his job – never losing sight of the fact that he had to “fly the plane” – in an extraordinary situation, and is now dazed by all the attention coming his way. It is as if the film is adopting Sullenberger’s own work ethic, telling its viewer: okay, that’s it, we have nothing more to show you, so let’s just sign off with this little quip – much the same way a pilot, after executing a routine landing, might say a quick parting line to the air-traffic-controller he has been communicating with.

In the light of recent revelations about Sully, though, I have been thinking again about that closing scene, and about the film’s determinedly low-key tone.

In debates about cinematic licence in the depiction of real-world events, it is usually accepted that a commercial feature film dramatizes reality, to some degree or another. But this can mean many things. In some cases (and this may sound counterintuitive), “dramatize” is a synonym for “simplify”: streamlining the messy randomness of real life – the many intersecting mini-dramas that are so hard to keep track of – into a more predictable and easy-to-digest narrative. (What was that again about some truths being stranger than fiction?)

Some films stray so far from their source events that they are, for all intents and purposes, fictional – and this is usually not a problem if they carry a “loosely based on” disclaimer. Others are attentive to the main facts but condense timelines or expand the big moments, greatly varying their tone in the process: Argo, about the rescue of American diplomats during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979, was a subdued film for the most part, but the climax played almost like a breathless video game, the plane carrying the evacuees taking off with seconds to spare (after the ground authorities realized what was going on and deployed ground vehicles to pursue the big bird as it taxied down the runway).

Sometimes, real-life figures are glamorized (or two characters are reshaped into one) so that they dovetail with the screen persona, or the acting strengths, of the star playing the part: see Rani Mukherji as the spirited reporter investigating the Jessica Lall murder case in No One Killed Jessica, or Akshay Kumar as the self-centred businessman who, almost in spite of himself, becomes a saviour in Airlift. And in mainstream Hindi cinema, we are used to biopics that, even when filmed with integrity and seriousness, make concessions to popular taste. When Priyanka Chopra is cast as the Manipuri boxer Mary Kom in a high-profile film, or when Farhan Akhtar plays Milkha Singh, looking buffer than the original, the informed viewer understands that a certain compromise is involved (even if the performances in themselves are fine, and even if we agree that an alien freshly arrived on earth with no background information on Kom or Milkha, and no preconceptions about Priyanka or Farhan, would find the acting persuasive).

In most such cases the embellishment is obvious. If confronted with errors or factual inaccuracies, a fan of the film might say “Arre, film thi, documentary nahin – thoda toh drama daalna hee tha.” But what when dramatization (or simplification) occurs in a place where you don’t expect it to occur, and somehow goes hand in hand with extreme austerity of form? What when a film from another cinematic culture – a culture more associated with understatement – is very restrained in tone, but still has a hidden, narrative-fixing agenda?

Back to Sully, which is, after all, a story about a very unassuming real-life hero. In the film, Sullenberger seems as taciturn and undemonstrative as some of the cowboy-loners Eastwood played half a century ago. (With some minor differences, of course: it’s hard to picture the Man with No Name from the Dollars Trilogy smiling bashfully on the David Letterman Show!) “Yes, I know it’s a strange thing to land a plane in a river, but do we have to fuss so much about it?” you can imagine him thinking. “Can I get back to my life now?”

You watch on, marveling at how it’s possible to make such a quiet film about such a high-octane real-life event. If such a story were to be dramatized to get an audience’s adrenaline flowing, you’d reason it would be during the flight scenes. And when those turn out to be muted, it becomes easy to feel that here is a genuinely “realistic” film about a real-life incident.

Then, a while later, you learn about the facts of the case. About how the actual NTSB hearing was pure procedure – appropriate procedure, given the stakes involved – and not a case of a pilot being hounded by crafty prosecutors (there seems little argument about this: the real-life Sullenberger has been on record about the matter in interviews). And now, with hindsight, you realize that there was something pat and simplistic about those scenes, a subtle attempt to create antagonists for us to root against, so that the hero in turn becomes even more sympathetic; to manipulate the natural human tendency to plumb for individual heroes over large, rule-enforcing organisations.

I should stress that this has only slightly dampened my appreciation of Sully – I still hold the film in high regard (and as discussed in an earlier column, I don’t easily forego my first-time viewing impressions). But it did create pause for thought, and a reassessment of what “dramatic” means. Now, even that closing scene – which I admired so much – has begun to feel a tiny bit manipulative, as if a director with something to hide was trying hard to create the impression that his film was pure slice of life with no flourishes, no extra toppings.

[Another post with related thoughts: Manjhi the Mountain Man]


  1. Very nice take on real life situations and cinematic depiction. Thanks!

  2. The movie technically ended like that but that was not the last visual, was it? There were the bits with the real life Sully and the real stewardesses and the real passengers - all beaming and cracking jokes - which felt a bit self-indulgent to me, seemed to undercut the quiet drama of that last shot.

    1. Radhika: fair point, and I have to admit I was walking out and barely registering those bits, once I had figured that they were obligatory shots of Real Sully and thus not part of the film's narrative...

  3. Yes, I get that. I found those shots annoying actually. It seemed as they were tacked on to offer verisimilitude to the story - see, this is Real Sully and so everything shown so far was Real Aftermath after the Real Hudson Landing - when in fact there was considerable dramatic license taken with the Real Events. I think I would have felt less manipulated if Eastwood hadn't tried this rather cutesy hoodwinking device

  4. Totally unrelated- given your interest in Shakespeare adaptations to cinema, wanted to draw your attention to the recent Bengali film "Zulfiqar" by director Srijit Mukherjee (still running in some of the theatres in South Delhi, I believe). Its based on 'Julius Ceaser' and 'Anthony And Cleopetra" (basing it in criminal gang settings in Kolkata port)- while its not a very satisfying movie-watching experience, I thought you may be interested in watching it from a 'professional perspective'