Article Written by Ross Munro
Just in time for prime awards launching season, Hollywood has dropped two prominent biopics into multiplexes within a mere week of each other by a duo of successful American mainstream filmmakers.
First up is Clint Eastwood’s “Sully”, with Tom Hanks doing his best imitation of the role Jimmy Stewart would’ve aced if the movie were filmed half a century ago (which it feels like by the way) as he plays hero-temporarily disgraced-back to hero again Capt. Sullenberger who’s fifteen minutes of real life fame saw him pilot his airliner full of Hollywood casting extras to safety, crash landing on the Hudson River after a random cluster of birds (Damn you Alfred Hitchcock!) clog and paralyze the plane’s engines.
The film’s threadbare thesis- that he could be even considered something other than heroic in his split-second life-saving cockpit decisions- finds him and his first officer (Aaron Eckhart reliable as usual in a second banana role) in a cinematic kangaroo court as his superiors “grill” him on whether or not he made the wrong decision to ditch the plane but, as we all realize from the get-go, this notion will be proven preposterous as the Aviation Board soon are ready to bow at the feet of the conquering pilot (even getting a personal apology from Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn- how cool is that…?).
So, beyond this toothless attempt at some kind of conflict, we are left at least with some pretty impressive dramatically harrowing footage of the plane’s emergency landing- reminiscent of the much more involving and morally complex Hollywood predecessor of Robert Zemeckis’ “Flight”.
That director Eastwood is able to stretch what should be a compact 60 Minutes segment into a feature is some kind of victory (no truth to the rumors that Sully talks to his empty cockpit chair as per the ever-Conservative Clint…) as he’s abetted by Hank’s amiable performance. After “Sully” and in the previous “Captain Phillips” all Tom Hanks needs is a movie where he brings a bullet train to safety (“Engineer Smith: The Trestle Conspiracy”) and he can bag the trifecta of the Hollywood Transportation Trilogy.
Next up, we have that old agit-prop maestro Oliver Stone’s surprisingly tepid “Snowden” which, after the chillingly effective Oscar-winning doc on Snowden “Citizen X”, would prove to be a difficult challenge for any filmmaker but I was actually hoping someone with Stone’s pedigree to spark outrage would bring an interesting take to the proceedings.
But, alas, Stone, to the film’s detriment, opts for a traditional cinematic path focusing a great deal of time on his romance with his long-suffering girlfriend (Shailene Woodley who here gets a little more time to shine than “Sully”’s barely used Laura Linney playing essentially the same role of moving along the two script’s exposition and affording opportunities to reveal the internal wangling of there men’s buttoned-down personalities).
Which brings us to the performance of the talented Joseph Gordon Leavitt who doesn’t so much act but, instead, seems to have perfectly imitated the vocal mannerisms of the titular character. Both movies use obligatory flashbacks to shape our “hero”’s journey- Stone’s “Snowden” building his film’s structure around them compared to the minimal nods to the past of “Sully”- but Stone (who co-wrote the screenplay) does little to make Snowden’s transformation from right wing true believer to astonishingly betrayed leftie, despite the actor Leavitt’s best efforts, seem anything more than convenient storytelling that ends up selling the complexity of his subject woefully short.
Like “Sully”, the film “grapples” with the complex issue of Snowden’s status as saint or devil but, as the warm response of the audience during Snowden’s skype after-screening will attest to, it appears that the 29-year old well-spoken whistleblower is only a demon in the circles of Fox News and White House administrators afraid to bestow him with a pardon in fear of the contrived media reprisals of Team Limbaugh and Co.
If one were keeping score with the finished results of these two biopics, you’d have to give a slight nod to Eastwood’s “Sully” over the more conventionally staid and underwhelming “Snowden”. Combined with the success of his previous audience/critic favorite “American Sniper”, Clint, despite his pedestrian mise-en-scene seems to have his finger on the pulse of audiences with his choice of material while his once-relevant competitor (“Platoon” and “Salvador” amongst others) Oliver Stone seems to be sliding down the path of cinematic obsolescence although still able to attract A-list actors in seems.
Perhaps Stone had the more daunting task of conveying the polarizing Snowden within the confines of a two hour movie while Eastwood’s film was just the right length to capture the Everyman toil and avuncular bonhomie of Captain Sully’s 15 minutes of fame.
No word yet on who will be starring in Clint’s next movie about an unabashed patriot prone to conversations with an empty chair opening at over 1,000 theatres in the spring of ’17…