We need a hero every now and then.  Chesley (“Sully”) Sullenberger, the pilot who somehow guided his damaged plane to a landing on the Hudson River on a cold day in January, 2009, allowing every one of the 155 passengers and crew on the plane to survive, is definitely one of those.

mv5bmjm5nje2mti1nf5bml5banbnxkftztgwnzuymjc3ote-_v1_ux477_cr00477268_al_Sully, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Tom Hanks as the heroic pilot, tells the story of that fateful day . . . and a little bit more besides.  Interestingly, the focus of the movie isn’t on the “forced landing,” as Captain Sullenberger calls it, but on the aftermath, as Sully the man struggles to deal with sudden fame and the potential ramifications of a National Transportation Safety Board investigation of the incident.  For while the rest of America was celebrating Sully as a hero, the bureaucratic investigators were looking at whether he could have, and should have, gotten the plane back to LaGuardia or to another nearby airport.  If the investigation determined that Captain Sullenberger was at fault — a scenario the movie presents as a real possibility — he could lose his job when his family could ill afford it and also see that sudden celebrity turn to ashes in his mouth.

Sully is a well-made human interest story that packs a touching emotional punch.  The highlight of the film, of course, is the abrupt flight of US Airways Flight 1549, the bird strike that crippled the plane, and the quick and calm decisions of Captain Sullenberger and his co-pilot, and the flight attendants.  The depiction of the incident is absolutely convincing and astonishingly realistic, and a testament to just how far Hollywood special effects have come.   The viewer is on board, in the cockpit, and ultimately with the crew and passengers as the doomed plane begins to sink into the frigid river, water gushes in, and the survivors huddle on the plane’s wings and safety rafts hoping to be saved.  It’s a harrowing experience, even when we know that it will all turn out all right.

sully-trailer-810x540As the events unfold, you can’t help but identify with the desperate passengers who know that something is wrong and then hear the Captain say:  “This is the Captain.  Brace for impact.”  (Those are words I hope to never hear on my travels, no matter how calmly they might be spoken.)  But the passengers were in the hands of angels that day, because somehow the captain and crew kept them alive.  Sully later says, “we were just doing our jobs,” but we know that there is more to it than that, and he’s just been appealingly modest about having done something tremendous.  And equally uplifting are the immediate responses of the ferry boat captains, diving units, firefighters, and police officers who keep the passengers and crew of the sinking plane from drowning or dying from hypothermia.  There were many, many heroes on the Hudson that day.

Hanks is terrific as Sully, the man.  We feel his anguish as he is tormented by nightmares of what could have been, and we feel his surge of joy and pride when he is finally told that every one of the people on the plane under his charge survived.  He knows in his gut that he made the right decision, but it’s not clear that the administrative state will agree with him.  When the formal NTSB hearing finally occurs, and Sully’s years of experience allow him to show that the computer simulations and the human simulations are dead wrong, we know that he has saved the day once again — by keeping a true hero from being unjustly maligned and allowing his reputation to remain, as it were, unsullied.

I encourage everyone to go see this film.  And stay in your seats while the credits roll if you want to get an extra feel-good treat.

Bridge Of Spies At The Arena Grand

Today, I wasn’t going to be gulled into watching the Browns.  It was a beautiful fall day, so Kish and I decided to walk down to the Arena District to catch Bridge of Spies at the Arena Grand.

It’s not easy to find a movie that we both like.  Kish favors romances and the kind of character dramas that fall into the “chick flick” category, and I prefer action-adventure and sci-fi films.  Bridge of Spies is one of those rare movies that we both can get excited about.  An historical drama with the always excellent Tom Hanks as its star, about Cold War incidents that happened during our lifetime, Bridge of Spies seemed to be the perfect choice for a Sunday afternoon movie.  And it was.

If you haven’t seen Bridge of Spies, you’re missing something.  Hanks is excellent, as always, but Mark Rylance’s performance as Rudolf Abel, the accused Soviet spy, is a stunning revelation.  Rylance’s bushy-eyebrowed, deadpan treatment of the stoic Russian secret agent (and talented painter), and his clear chemistry with Hanks, takes the film from the realm of an interesting period piece into a real tour de force.

The movie is filled with fine performances and little touches that will resonate with those of us who grew up in the early ’60s and remember “duck and cover” lectures and air raid drills during grade school.  And — for me at least — it was refreshing to see a movie treat lawyers with sensitivity and respect and depict them in a way that reflects honorably on our profession.  In his own quiet and determined and ethical way, Hanks’ depiction of insurance attorney James B. Donovan, who was charged with representing a man most Americans wanted to hang, is one of the most positive portrayals of a lawyer since Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird made many young Americans decide to go to law school to try to improve the world.

This is the first time I’ve been to the Arena Grand complex, by the way, and it’s a great place to watch a movie.  We sat in comfortable seats, split some chicken quesadilla, and had a great time reliving those tense Cold War days.

Review: Cloud Atlas

The enslaved fast-food worker Son-Mi struggles for freedom in 22nd-century Korea.

I would be hard pressed to think of a book more difficult to turn into a movie than David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.

Mitchell’s book follows six plots from six eras of history. The stories are about, in chronological order, a man working on a slaveboat in the 19th century who has a crisis of conscience, an aspiring composer from the 1930s who must hide his homosexuality, a reporter in 1970s California who uncovers a deadly plot involving a nuclear power plant, an English man from the present day kept prisoner in a nursing home, a cloned fast-food slave from 22nd-century Korea who attempts an escape, and a man in post-apocalyptic Hawaii trying to protect his village from a predatory tribe. The plots are loosely connected by hints that some characters are reincarnations of the same soul.

As if turning that into a film weren’t hard enough, the book has a pita-sandwich structure, with the earliest story beginning and ending the book, the second coming second and second-to-last, etc. Only the chronologically-last story is unbroken in the middle, with the others cutting off abruptly, sometimes in the middle of a sentence.

When I saw the film version of Cloud Atlas over the weekend, I was amazed that the Wachowskis managed to turn the book not only into a coherent film, but an entertaining, thoughtful one. This took some serious story-telling skills and imagination (they are, after all, the directors of The Matrix), but also a talented cast and great stories to work from.

The movie abandons the pita-sandwich structure of the book. I imagine this was a difficult decision for the filmmakers, but the right one. They would be asking a lot of the audience to wait three hours (the movie clocks in at 2 hours and 50 minutes) to see the conclusion of the story that began the film. Instead, the directors and editors spliced together the six stories in parallel, matching their expositions, climaxes and denouements. In a feat that surely drew a lot of sweat from the screenwriters, editors and directors, they made this work. Although the pacing lags a bit near the end, they put the stories together in a way that makes their common themes clear and keeps the viewer hooked.

As in the case of all their work, the Wachowskis use their imaginative prowess to take the film to a higher level than the average Hollywood thriller, especially in their depiction of the 22nd-century Korea in which a “corpocratic” government rules over a mass of depraved consumers. A clone named Sonmi who is enslaved in a McDonald’s-style restaurant goes on the lam after glimpsing an inspiring movie clip on a customer’s phone. While reading the book, I savored every detail of this fascinating dystopia, and I felt the same way during the movie. The Wachowskis use special effects to create a brilliant vision of a brutal future that made me wish I could pause the movie to get a better look at Neo Seoul. The setting rivaled the Los Angeles of Blade Runner and the vast human-farms of the original Matrix in its horrible wonder.

Another ingredient of the glue that holds these plotlines together is the cast. Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant and Susan Sarandon play different characters in each of the stories, helping the viewer understand their cosmic connections. I especially enjoyed watching Tom Hanks show a versatility I didn’t know he had. I’ve always thought he had a knack at giving movies a moral center with down-to-earth roles, but here he pulls off a wild range of personalities – an evil doctor on a slave boat, a slimy hotel clerk, a conscientious nuclear scientist, a cockney tough-guy, and a schizophrenic tribal leader who speaks a pidgin future American English.

The Wachowskis were also successful in translating the themes of the book to the screen, if in a more digestible form. Each of the six stories follows characters who make the difficult choice to go against the grain of their historical setting to do what’s right. Obviously, the goodwill of the characters doesn’t keep society from going bonkers – that’s evident even from the trailer or the description on the back of the book. The message of the movie and the book is that even futile acts of charity are worthwhile because they elevate the human soul to an ether above worldly matters. Watching these stories, I felt the same revolutionary thrill as when Neo kills the agents at the end of The Matrix.

I was motivated to write this review by the lukewarm reception the movie has received elsewhere. I was bewildered by this, because Cloud Atlas got an emphatic check mark next to every entry on my list of what a movie should be. It was fun, it featured interesting characters, it transported me to different worlds, and it gave me something to think about after I left the theater.

Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close

I wasn’t sure I was ready to see Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close.  Even though 10 years have passed, 9/11 still is a very raw and difficult memory.

The film is about a New York City family’s response to a 9/11 loss that leaves a gaping void in their lives — but it is about a lot more than that.  The story is told from the perspective of Oskar, a bright boy who suffers from obsessive/compulsive tendencies and related emotional problems.  His father tries to connect him to the world through games and challenges.  When 9/11 sweeps his father from his life, Oskar tries to make sense of his loss while at the same time keeping his father’s memory alive, and his mother tries to help Oskar as she struggles with her own, overwhelming grief.  Oskar decides to accept a new challenge that ends up also causing him to interact with his fellow New Yorkers — all of whom also are attempting to cope with their own issues.  The script manages to explore the emotions of 9/11 without being cheaply exploitative.

I thought Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close was a unique, intensely powerful movie.  Thomas Horn makes his acting debut as Oskar, and he turns in a stunning, riveting performance as Oskar wrestles with feelings of loss, curiosity, and guilt.  Tom Hanks plays Oskar’s father with customary deftness, and Sandra Bullock delivers a quietly moving performance as Oskar’s mother.  The film is filled with many fine performances, including John Goodman as the doorman of Oskar’s apartment building, Max von Sydow as the mute Renter, who communicates through notes, tattooed “yes” and “no” on his palms, and facial expressions and body language, and Viola Davis as Abby Black, one of the people Oskar encounters.

An event as momentous as 9/11 deserves appropriately powerful cinematic treatment.  Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close delivers.