Flights of fancy

While a director is dealing with real-life heroes like Sully, how can drama help?

Tom Hanks and (right) Aaron Eckhart in ‘Sully’.
Tom Hanks and (right) Aaron Eckhart in ‘Sully’.

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 2009I 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 charges 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, “Yes, 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 feel quite like a beginning, 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 was 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 utter 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. But this can mean many things. In some cases (and this may sound counter-intuitive), “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.

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 (2012) was a subdued film for the most part, but the climax played almost like a breathless video game.

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 Mukerji as the spirited reporter 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, 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).

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 an 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 Late Show With David Letterman). “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, marvelling 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 adrenalin 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 we are even more sympathetic to the hero; to manipulate the natural human tendency to plump for individual heroes over large, rule-enforcing organizations.

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.

Above The Line is a fortnightly column on Hindi cinema and how it presents the world. Jai Arjun Singh tweets at @jaiarjun.

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