Every so often Hollywood will manage to put out a pair of movies so close to one another that one can’t help but look at them side by side. One such instance seemed to happen this month when two film’s went into wide release within a week of one another that are so different and yet so very similar. Both films are ostensible biopics about ordinary-ish people who became news stories within the last ten year for actions they took more or less over the course of a single night. Both films were directed by veteran filmmakers who have become associated with opposite sides of the political spectrum and both films have the challenge of expanding what are ostensibly brief “moments of truth” into feature length films. Hell, both films are named after surnames that start with “S.” And yet, what links the two films on a deeper level is that both films more or less exist to ask one simple question: “was this guy a hero?” The two movies I am of course talking about are Oliver Stone’s Edward Snowden biopic Snowden and Clint Eastwood’s Chesley Sullenberger biopic Sully.
To summarize these movies would almost be to simply recite the news headlines of a couple years ago, but I’ll do it just the same. Snowden depicts the life of Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levit) leading up to his decision to leak multiple government surveillance program to journalists Glen Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson). We see his time working in the CIA in both a direct capacity and as a contractor as well as his relationship with his longtime girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley). While Scully chronicles the day airline pilot Chesley Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) was forced to land an Airbus A320-214 in the Hudson River after losing two engines and the immediate aftermath of this incident including his time he and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) spent defending his actions to the National Transportation Safety Board.
Both of these movies come with their share of baggage; Sully needs to make a feature length film out of an incident that took something like thirty minutes in real life and Snowden has similar issues while also having to contend with the legacy of the critically adored documentary Citizenfour, which covers a lot of the same material. Both movies address these weaknesses by adopting non-chronological structures. Snowden probably does this in a more traditional way by making Snowden’s Hong Kong meeting with Greenwald and Poitras (the centerpiece of Citizenfour) into a framing story from which we flash back to most of Snowden’s adult life leading up to that moment. That’s not terribly original but it does serve to solve one of the bigger problems with Citizenfour: the fact that that documentary did not really have an ending. Where Citizenfour set up this Hong Kong meeting as the beginning of something (namely a vigorous public debate), Stone’s Snowden instead sets this meeting up as the end of something (namely its main character’s arc). Sully by contrast begins after “the incident” and spends a majority of its runtime focusing on Sullenberger as he reacts to his sudden fame, experiences post-crash jitters, and defends his actions to the investigators. It does of course eventually flash back to the crash, but the post-crash material is more the main story than a mere framing narrative.
The post-crash material in Sully showed some real promise in its early sections, in part because it seemed to be interested in getting into the head of its protagonist and exploring his self-doubt. At times it almost felt like a sort of companion-piece to American Sniper in that Sullenberger almost seemed to be going through a sort of post-traumatic stress as he contemplated what happened. I was especially interested in this notion that maybe Sullenberger had spent so much time considering worst case scenarios that once he finally found himself in an actual crisis he maybe, just maybe, over-reacted and tried to pull a hero move that may not have been necessary. The movie seems somewhat interested in tackling these issues during the first act but it quickly becomes clear that Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki are less interested in these nuances than maybe they should have been. Once the inquisitors from the NTSB come into the picture they feel less like professionals trying to do their jobs and more like smarmy villains who seem dead set in hurting our hero. I get the impression that these NTSB hearings have been condensed to the point of ridiculousness, all the parts where the questioners are being fair and professional is cut out and the few spots where they ask questions that prove baseless are emphasized. All the interesting self-doubt and second guessing of the first half is completely thrown out in favor of this bizarrely abrupt ending where the movie hits and incredibly smug note and then just cuts to credits rather than even bothering with the obligatory coda where our hero is reunited with his wife or something.
Given that Sully brings this controversy up just to drop it, I can’t help but feel like the movie was creating complexity where there may not have been any in the first place. Most people going into the movie already think Sullenberger was an unambiguous hero and the movie perhaps only sows doubt about this in order to give the film something do with its runtime. With Snowden Oliver Stone does not really have this luxury as his subject was a highly controversial figure from the moment he entered the public consciousness and in many ways Stone’s movie is interested in mounting a defense of his actions. As such there isn’t a whole lot of nuance in his movie either, but at least it doesn’t bring up the specter of nuance just to take it back and say “never mind.” The movie does do a pretty good job of showing exactly how the invasive government programs that Snowden blew the whistle on worked and how extensive their operations were. That’s something that Citizenfour was never really able to do and the movie also gives the viewer a better idea of how extensive Snowden’s CIA/NSA career was. On the other hand the fact still remains that the life of Edward Snowden, computer nerd extraordinaire, was never exactly the world’s most exciting person outside of his eventual whistle blowing and while seeing him slowly grow his convictions does have some interest it does not exactly make for the world’s most thrilling movie.
Both movies have at their centers a pretty strong performance. Tom Hanks is solid as Sullenberger as you’d expect given that playing likable everymen is his specialty. It’s hardly his best work but maybe it’s not that fair to dock points from the guy for his consistency. Joseph Gordon Levitt could also be said to be a pretty obvious casting choice for Edward Snowden but we’re slightly less used to seeing him play these kind of roles. Both movies sort of suffer a little just because their stars feel like movie stars playing dress up as commoners, but to some extent that’s just something you need to accept in Hollywood movies like this. Sully is probably the more obviously cinematic of the two movies given that it has a special effects scene at its center and that crash re-enactment definitely delivers on what its audience is expecting form it and I particularly liked the way it was able to successfully depict this crisis as a perfect fusion of different people working together to pull off a really unlikely save.
Beyond that the movie is tonally more or less what you’ve come to expect from a Clint Eastwood movie, albeit with a slightly lighter center given that the subject matter is fairly uplifting and Tom Hanks’ general presence adds a touch of levity as well. Of course Oliver Stone is also a pretty skilled filmmaker and while he’s been floundering as a filmmaker for the last couple decades he has always maintained a pretty good grasp on the fundamentals of filmmaking. There’s nothing in Snowden that’s as adventurous as what Stone was doing in something like JFK or Natural Born Killers but there are at least a couple of neat touches like a scene where Snowden is having a Skype call with his CIA mentor and rather than filming a computer screen Stone superimposes the image of this guy in the entire background of the screen with Snowden looking on in the foreground as if the CIA guy were Big Brother giving orders to one of his subjects. Stuff like that is relatively rare in the movie though and Stone generally plays things really safe, possibly to the movie’s detriment, and while this is better than most of the stuff Stone has made recently it still isn’t really the return to form that we’ve been waiting for from the guy.
So, in a direct contest between the two movies I’m not entirely sure which I’d choose. The actual plane crash scene in Sully is probably better than anything in Snowden but then again Snowden leave you with a little bit more to chew on and nothing in Snowden pissed me off as much as the way Sully ended. Really though I’m not sure I can say either of these movies rose above the level of “average.” Of the two Snowden is probably the bigger lost opportunity as I feel like something a lot better could have been made either by a younger and more adventurous Oliver Stone or someone else who just had a more creative approach. Sully on the other hand probably wouldn’t have benefited from a less conventional approach so much as it could have used a few more re-writes, possibly by someone with a slightly more thoughtful approach. Ultimately I think both movies probably do justify their existences, but just barely and while I would say both will work well enough for people who are already interested I’m not sure I’d recommend either as movies which people who are on the fence should go ahead and take the plunge on but I’m sure both would satisfy if caught on HBO or Netflix some day.