Taipei Story (1985, Edward Yang)

break

One important, vital aspect of my heritage that took me far too long to understand was the role of the Taiwanese dialect, specifically Taiwanese Hokkien. For many years, my parents spoke to each other semi-frequently in a language that sounded similar to the Mandarin that I knew, but which was generally unintelligible to me. I must confess that I still know very few words of Hokkien, but more important to me is the context in which my parents used it. Whether they intended it as such or not, I always felt as if they were keeping some form of secret from me, discussing things in front of my sister and me that we couldn’t understand, whether we wanted to or not.

Taipei Story, Edward Yang’s second masterful feature, doesn’t traffic in this level of a language barrier, but its use of language is no less revealing. In its portrayal of two estranged partners – Lung (Hou Hsiao-hsien) and Chin (Tsai Chin) – living in a rapidly modernizing Taipei, the film switches frequently and consistently between Hokkien and Mandarin Chinese. Without perhaps no exceptions, the conversations that only involve Lung, whether it be with childhood friends or elderly acquaintances, utilize Hokkien, while all conversations involving Chin – except those, crucially, with her parents – use Mandarin.

Though it is never stated outright in the film, my general impression of the role of Mandarin in Taiwan is that of the language of modernity – notably, Hokkien was banned in schools until roughly around the time this film was made. Accordingly, the business world of Chin and the deadbeat society of Lung are carried out in entirely different manners of speaking.

Yang is wise to never make Taipei Story a simple story of the struggle between the memories of the past, which Lung is never able to shake off, and the promises of the future. The conflict is complicated by both parties: Lung constantly tries to move to the United States, in a way not dissimilar to that of my own father, while Chin falls in with the youthful biker gangs that her younger sister hangs out with. Both members of the couple, to put it plainly, strive to capture and retain something of their youth while still prospering in the modern capitalist society of the mid-’80s.

In Yang’s vision of Taipei, this seems to be little more than a fantasy, as one has to choose between one or the other. But of course, this is never approached in a didactic or obvious manner, allowing for, as the film puts it, fleeting moments of hope to linger. That the film is maybe the most tragic of the Yangs I’ve seen is a testament to this sense of latent fatalism, of people too caught in the past, whether they realize it or not.

Through these inextricably entwined journeys, Yang shoots with his particular combination of intimacy and distance that never fails to surprise and move me. A shot from the other side of a mammoth office building, two perfectly rhymed tracking shots, numerous gazes down onto the busy streets of Taipei, all coalescing perfectly with the immaculately posed figures quietly discussing troubles in an apartment, or on a playground, or at a bar.

Those figures move inexorably towards their ends – one trading the world of physical architecture for the digital architecture of big data, the other beaten in a final attempt to prove his own sense of self-worth over the generation already overtaking him – but they do so with an inordinate sense of care on the part of Yang. Not one interaction, one small gesture ultimately feels out of place, and what resonates is the forlorn face of Lung, the implacability of Chin, each equally conveying an overwhelming sadness.

Certain Tendencies [REAR WINDOW]

blinded

It is perhaps no accident that the one apartment glimpsed more than once that is not explored by the roving eyes of Jeffries (and, of course, the viewer) is the one of what appears to be a loving and relatively normal family. Implicitly, the audience can grasp that what attracts the voyeur is brokenness in all its forms, whether it be creative rut, the fading luster of a new marriage, a hunger for something more in life, or simply the damn heat of summer in Greenwich Village. And from those elemental building blocks, those concerns which when combined form a microcosm of society at large, Hitchcock weaves something truly indelible, something which might even be perfect.

Rear Window may even surpass its legendary status purely based on how much it contains beyond the justly famous murder mystery plot. This is patently obvious from the objects of focus throughout; the case of Lars Thornwald isn’t even spotlighted until around the end of the first third, and Hitchcock places equal emphasis until then on the action happening inside the apartment as he does on the voyeurism – though, of course, the latter informs the former to no small extent. Lisa and Stella especially are incredibly thought-through characters, neither falling into a set stereotype but instead emerging as credible sources of both repartee and a tenderness that Jeffries struggles to reciprocate, turning instead to the outside world.

And it is indeed a world, populated with people who overcome the lack of audible dialogue to inhabit a general sense of longing and not-so-private conflict. The degree to which Hitchcock establishes each object of attention is such that when the silence is broken, and the camera leaves the confines of the apartment for the first time, it feels like the natural course of action. The viewer’s sympathies lie with the grieving couple not only because of their loss but because they feel like more than just objects.

It goes without saying that the outside goings-on reflect the inner turmoil of Jeffries to no small extent. More than anything, it is in the patterns and routines that he observes and his own pattern that he is forced to adopt due to both external influences (his confining cast) and his own obsession. Miss Torso dances and entertains men, the newlywed husband smokes forlornly out the window, the couple struggle to weather the elements, and all the while Jeffries can do nothing but watch. No wonder he fixates on the murder, a break in the monotony that, by proxy, affects the whole complex.

The Lost City of Z

jungle

Originally intended for Seattle Screen Scene.

The Lost City of Z has landed in the cinephile community with the kind of impact typically reserved for the most lauded or debated of auteurs. In some sense, this is expected: its director, James Gray, has steadily accrued a small but intensely dedicated following for his character-driven crime dramas and plain dramas like We Own the Night (2007), Two Lovers (2008), and his breakout The Lost City of Z (2013). Each of these films, as described in interviews with the writer-director, is almost self-consciously a throwback to a more classical Hollywood model of filmmaking–complete with a strict adherence to shooting on 35mm–but they are all distinctly American. All of his past films have taken place in immigrant communities in the US, and are inherently tied to some sense of overwhelming longing.

Gray’s latest film continues this sense of “classicism” (a dangerous but somewhat fitting term to use in relation to Gray), though the setting is changed to two locations: London and the uncharted jungles of the Amazon. The film follows the story of adventurer and soldier Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunman), structuring the film around his three expeditions to the Amazon over a period of two decades in the early twentieth century, as he attempted to discover a legendary lost civilization deep within the jungle. Crucially, however, The Lost City of Z is not a film that concerns itself solely with the act of depicting the explorations or distilling it to a descent into madness a la Herzog or Apocalypse Now. Gray’s path, like Fawcett’s, is far more knotted.

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I Am Not Your Negro

protest

Especially at this moment of social crisis, it seems a moot point to dismiss relevancy as an insignificant part of any film’s power, something that goes double for a documentary about a subject of this sort. For my own part, I saw I Am Not Your Negro in the largest crowd I’ve ever seen at an arthouse theater. The audience was appropriately lively, and I would easily concede that I was swept up in the emotions of the crowd. But I Am Not Your Negro is no mere piece of rabble-rousing agitprop, nor is it heedlessly provocative for the sake of “sending a message.” It is relentlessly sober, contemplative, yet simmering with all too deserving anger, as Raoul Peck dives with incisiveness into a uniquely American kind of of injustice through one of the nation’s most singular minds.

It should be emphasized here that there is a harmony between subject and filmmaker that I have very rarely seen. Peck and James Baldwin are both shown to be equal parts celar-minded and wily, making points with wit that never masks an almost deadly seriousness. For Baldwin, this manifests itself largely in his archival interviews (which are contrapuntal to Jackson’s voiceover, of which much will be discussed later), and for Peck, this is shown in his sense of montage. It is sometimes almost hilariously literal (displaying footage of Mars while Baldwin describes the dissociation of whites from blacks) and sometimes breathtakingly damning, as he lets various scenes from media play in full and employs just the appropriate amount of current-day footage without letting it become distractiong.

But, arguably, I Am Not Your Negro‘s most valuable asset is Samuel L. Jackson’s revelatory voiceover performance of Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript Remember This House, which forms the backbone of the documentary and was supposed to be a personal retelling of the assassinations of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. Jackson is extraordinarily, heartbreakingly subdued here, his trademark fire and brimstone compressed into a voice just barely recognizable. It is subdued, but it broils with repressed anger to a degree that every quiver, every pause conveys a bottomless pit of sorrow and emotion. Peck wisely alternates between this proposal of a book and the more energetic archival footage, and in doing so creates a cohesive and often troubling whole.

It is entirely false to say that Peck is didactic in his filmmaking or arguments, and only rarely does it feel as if he is “just” making his point to the audience. His form of rhetoric is couched in categorical terms (there are various parts named like “Heroes”), and it slowly builds throughout the film as the evidence mounts and Baldwin’s (and Peck’s) views are explicated further and further. There are the bravura scenes, such as an extended excerpt from Baldwin’s appearance on the Dick Cavett show where he rightfully excoriates a foolish professor who claims that Baldwin has a similar experience to him. But there are also the more damning and castigatory (and usually the weaker) scenes, like one that explicitly condemns Gary Cooper and Doris Day for being the emblems of comfortable white society.

But it is entirely to I Am Not Your Negro‘s benefit that Peck stops short of laying out a clear-cut message, as he recognizes the issues at hand are far more complex and important than befits a sound bite. Baldwin himself says “the history of America is the history of the Negro in America. And it’s not a pretty picture,” and the film makes the case in astonishingly powerful and almost unanimously persuasive terms. It draws no quarter in its insight, in its anger, and its genuine call for change.

O.J.: Made in America

****1/2 (Tour-de-force)

O.J.: Made in America is not a call to revolution. It is not a smear campaign or an overt attack on the LAPD or any other group; instead it is a deeply analytical, deeply felt portrait of one man in the United States, but that is all that Ezra Edelman needs to create this Rorschach test of a film. It is a tragedy, an elegy, and a document of the most exacting and inclusive scope. Perhaps it is unwise to define a film in such lofty terms, but O.J.: Made in America demands it by virtue of its vital length and its monumental subject matter.

The documentary’s success is all the more surprising because it arises from the ESPN 30 for 30 unit, which exclusively deals in sports documentaries. This is not to denigrate the series as a whole (I’ve seen few, if any of the other documentaries) but to illustrate the improbability of the film’s scope. O.J. Simpson, crucially, isn’t treated as a simple entry point for the movie’s larger observations on L.A. or even the entire nation; he is given equal weight as a larger-than-life figure, and Edelman presents the sometimes unbelievable events of his improbable life with the same soberness as the boiling racial tensions of the “real world”.

This dichotomy between Simpson’s life, as his football stardom propelled him to nationwide fame and his private life spiraled, and the continual struggle of the black community in Los Angeles is perhaps the true subject of the documentary. Edelman balances the two narratives with a keen sense of balance in both runtime and content. Moving back and forth just before the viewer registers just how much time has been spent on each part, the documentary fits an almost equivalent amount of information—and, even more importantly, context—in each corresponding section. In the first three parts, where the divide is much clearer, the intersection of O.J. and L.A. is rare (most notably in the bravura 1968 section, which juxtaposes the glory of O.J.’s Heisman year and corresponding media appearances with the anger and numerous assassinations outside the USC bubble), but by the time of his trial in the closing minutes of the third part, the line is erased.

The trial is undoubtedly the most publicized and exciting part of the documentary, and the documentary delves deeply into the multiple corrosive influences and mistakes that led to the infamous verdict. But O.J.: Made in America‘s status as a look into the two subjects is made even more clear in the surrounding timespans. From the impossibly important events, such as the Watts or Rodney King riots, to the almost irrelevant, like O.J.’s movie career or his wildly successful (and illuminating) representation of Hertz car rentals, Edelman incorporates them all, teasing out the inherent racial tensions and compromises that seemed to engulf practically everything that O.J. and L.A. did over nearly half a century. The documentary never feels static or removed from the present day for many reasons, but one less evident one is the use of new non-interview footage. Often taking the form of gliding helicopter shots over the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum or of L.A. in general, they are used to link the stories of Simpson and Los Angeles together with no small amount of fluidity.

Without a narrator, the meat of O.J.: Made in America is the archival footage and interview that give the documentary life, and an overwhelming amount has assembled in service of a very clear thesis: to show how O.J., in some ways, is Los Angeles, embodying all of its contradictions and tensions between while covering it with a smiling facade. No aspect of O.J.’s life, and probably few of the most important events in Los Angeles, are left out, and it seems as if almost every key player (and many people on the periphery) have been convinced into appearing on camera. Footage from O.J.’s football career all the way to his current incarceration in Nevada—audaciously placed at the very beginning to throw away any illusions about his ultimate fate—is included, and not dissimilar to other narrative films it lends an added sense of poignancy to see Simpson age over the years as he walked further and further away from the light. Edelman follows him everywhere, even going down the rabbit hole of his wild living in Miami after the trial, and creates a truly human portrait of this at times mythical man, capturing his genuinely good qualities and laying them beside his irredeemable flaws, especially the extensive abuse that would lead up to the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown. The lively talking heads aid this sense of humanity, giving multiple perspectives on both O.J. and Los Angeles, and Edelman purposefully chooses not to censor any of them, leading to often conflicting and even outright racist remarks (on occasion, the editing almost creates a verbal sparring match between two interviewees).

All of this is to say that O.J.: Made in America is not a revolution in terms of its craft, a quality almost undeniably for the better. By adopting this sober, straightforward approach, Edelman focuses on the most important aspect, the information, and uses it to highlight the flaws of American society as a whole. Only O.J., who was able to effectively move between black and white culture and won his trial in large part because of his exclusive status, could work as such a galvanizing conduit. And in this method of exposé, O.J.: Made in America is its own sort of revolution, incisive but never dogmatic.

Moonlight

***1/2 (Excellent)

The only true constant in Moonlight is its look. It is an odd sort of luminescence, bringing out the vibrancy of the subject while turning everything not in the immediate foreground into a impressionistic haze of blurred colors. The effect is definitely one of immediacy, but crucially, it is immediacy that belongs to all time periods: apart from some signposts in the form of cars, cell phones, and music, the setting of the film, Miami, doesn’t seem to change all that much. The background of run-down homes, barred windows, and an moonlit beach stay the same, while the people and their changes are highlighted in stunning detail.

The movie’s visual style mirrors Barry Jenkins’ approach towards his main character, Chiron. The story of Chiron’s growth during three decades in Miami, Moonlight functions less like a biography and more like a series of snapshots. Each section, denoted by the name Chiron goes by in each section (Little, Chiron, and Black, respectively), is set over a few consecutive days, and the events are at once the most consequential and yet seem like transitions to different stages of Chiron’s life. They are formative moments, in a sense, and they come together over the course of the film to gather a quiet, cumulative force that dazes the viewer, making them feel as lost yet as at home as Chiron does.

For the most part, Moonlight follows the two influences that come to define Chiron: his parent figures, particularly his junkie mother Paula (a by turns manipulative and broken Naomie Harris) and drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali, overwhelmingly compassionate), and his burgeoning identity as a gay black man. More than often, these are inextricably entwined. In the first scene, young Chiron, called Little in this segment (an almost mute yet expressive Alex Hibbert), runs past Juan while being chased by bullies. After this initial coincidence, the film’s moments arise out of unexpected developments in relationships already well established, as Chiron grows and learns more about the people around him.

But through other people, he learns about himself too. Though the moments that ultimately have the most impact on Chiron’s existence come invariably at the end of each chapter, the ones that affect him more on an emotional level come more towards the middle. For Little, there are many but none more inexplicably serene as when Juan teaches him to swim, holding him in an almost baptismal pose in the ocean. For Chiron as a teenager (a belligerent and remarkably self-contained Ashton Sanders) it is an encounter on the beach with Kevin, his lifelong friend, the sexual nature of which plays out entirely through hands moving through the sand. For Black (Trevante Rhodes, hulking but astonishingly sensitive), it is an extended conversation at the diner where Kevin (André Holland, immensely caring) now cooks, the two not having seen each other since the previous chapter. These moments are never announced, never spotlighted. But it is precisely because of this that they have such power; in contrast to other scenes (mostly involving Paula and a gang of bullies) that seem at times a bit overdetermined, harrowing as they are in the moment, these moments of serenity are as unadorned as they would be in life.

And it is this sense of life that makes Moonlight so dazzling. Though it has as much to say about masculinity as it does gay identity—Black, a drug dealer in Atlanta (before he goes back to visit Kevin in Miami) is almost a mirror image of his father figure Juan, complete with a grill—it is at heart the story of a boy who learns to become a man. But Jenkins never lets it fall into clichés, with his sketch-like approach, his luminous depiction of Miami, and most importantly of all, his grounding in Chiron. Despite, or perhaps because of, his representation of Chiron in three actors and three time periods, Moonlight is truly emotional and universal while remaining profoundly coded in the black experience. The final two shots both provide a conclusion and a continuation; at heart, we are all children in the waves of time.

The Heart of the World

****1/2 (Tour-de-force)

“The Heart of the World” is at once quite simple and inordinately complex, stymieing most sensible attempts to dissect it. A story laid out in broad terms but filled with the grand tradition that proceeds it, it is a behemoth of small stature. Guy Maddin dares to use just six minutes to not only lay out the cinematic condition, but to wrap it in a tale of love, revenge, and sacrifice that becomes universal.

At its core, “The Heart of the World” is fashioned after propaganda films, and thus its most important goal is to induce feeling. In the traditional propaganda films it is most inspired by, these are patriotic feelings, but Maddin manages to enlarge and deepen them, retaining the pride while adding a clear emotional core in the three individuals that never distracts from the world-altering consequences. The narrative is both simple and ludicrous enough to work—a love triangle that reaches its fever pitch just as the end of the world (via a literal heart attack) arrives, only to be interrupted by a capitalist—and Maddin recognizes and adapts to how narratively restricting six minutes is. But he also finds time to insert the beautifully bizarre: a phallic embalming machine, strange laboratories, an actor who tries to become Christ.

Of course, “The Heart of the World”‘s most stellar aspect is Maddin’s crazed visual sense, unleashing a barrage of close-ups that collapses cross-cutting in on itself. It is never incoherent, which only adds to the disorientation of the already strange images. And yet, this effect causes the viewer to have the most curious emotion: pride. Whether it be caused primarily by the formal mastery, the soaring and hyperkinetic score, or just the Soviet-inspired images, this sense of pride is among the most awe-inspiring feelings I’ve had watching a film; it appeals to the cinephile with its final exultation of “Kino”, but it also appeals to a primal thrill, an elemental fascination with the kind of purity of expression that Maddin uses here. “The Heart of the World” is a short for all humanity, beautiful, crazed, and breathless.

The Shallows

**** (Great)

Jaume Collet-Serra operates in an entirely different style in his latest triumph, The Shallows. While his past movies largely worked either in horror or action, and situated themselves to either confined locations or maze-like cities, this film is in a sort of middle-ground, a thriller taking place entirely on a secret beach in Mexico. The setting does a significant amount to illustrate the underlying qualities that distinguish the movie so much: just big enough to allow for the Macgyver-esque tricks that Nancy must pull to survive the ordeal she faces, but secluded enough to ensure she is almost solely on her own, all mixed in with the at turns gorgeous and menacing ocean waves that her foe swims through.

More than a little bit of the genius that propels The Shallows must be accredited to Anthony Jaswinski’s screenplay, which is thoroughly and fully no-frills and constructs the simple premise with care. After an partially extraneous in medias res prologue, the first act is almost fully idyllic, slowly putting the pieces into place while indulging in genuine pleasure. Some time is spent on the journey to the beach, and Collet-Serra expends equal focus on backstory—with some wonderful digital projections of iPhone pictures—and simple banter between Nancy and her driver Carlos, while the forest glides by the windows. And even more time is spent on Nancy after she arrives and surfs, including a scenic three-screen video-chat that furnishes the rest of the backstory in an economical, if not necessarily vital, manner. It is inaccurate to say that Collet-Serra is trying to lull the viewer into a false sense of security, as there are more than a few fake-outs; moreso that he establishes an almost dreamlike mood that extends to much of the movie after the attack. Even the surfing montage set to an electronic song is cut-up and eventually abandoned, favoring the moments when Nancy goes beneath the water, treating them as near ethereal.

Of course, it is in the water, where Nancy feels at home, that she is attacked, though only after she approaches a rotting whale carcass. The scene’s progression is presented in the terms that define the rest of the film. The whale is a roiling mass of blood and blubber that sends Nancy into a panic as she tries to get away, only to be pulled beneath the waves. No part of the actual attack is shown onscreen, instead presented in one prolonged shot of Nancy underwater as blood slowly tinges the water.

The rest of The Shallows is pure thriller, as Collet-Serra finally slips into his most comfortable mode. Despite the open water, and in some ways because of it, Nancy is confined to a rock that becomes an island during low tide, adding an additional time constraint to her already despairing situation. Blake Lively also seems to become even stronger in this spare setting; she delivers the exposition in an easy-going manner, which only makes her urgency even more striking. Whether it be improvising stitches with earrings or judging the amount of time she has while the shark is circling, Lively captures even the moments when she is laying on the rock in despair seem of utmost importance.

And it is these moments that Collet-Serra is interested in the most as well. Much of the film is spent in what could be considered a sort of downtime, the inevitable space between the thrilling moments when Lively must venture into the more open water and face the shark, stinging coral, and in one entirely unexpected, luminous scene, a mass of jellyfish. There are no shortage of close-ups, especially on Nancy’s face that registers weariness, fear, and pain in unmistakable detail, but there are also startling overhead shots and wide-spanning vistas that never fail to capture the looming presence just below the surface. The economical nature of the players and things involved is of utmost importance, as the various human presences (including surfers she had met before and a distant ship) all make little difference until the end, and a seagull (hiliariously named Steven Seagull) provides for a consistent companion and a silent source of strength for Nancy.

Everything ultimately serves a purpose in this airtight film, but it never feels preordained, flowing as smoothly as the waves, and Collet-Serra rarely lets the film get out of hand as Nancy moves to the buoy that serves as the venue for the final encounter. It feels earned, not just because of the ideas introduced in the exposition or the astonishing Go-Pro message Nancy recorded before she moves, but because of the physicality of the film, how visceral each attack feels (regardless of whether it lands or not). And the final scene, another surfing scene set to Sia, is earned as well, for both Nancy and the viewer, who have both gone through a truly awe-inspiring thrill ride through life and death.

De Palma

***1/2 (Excellent)

Brian De Palma is perhaps best known for his extravagant visual sensibilities—his split-diopters, his long takes, his split screens—so much so that his remarkable acuity for the emotions vital to his films is usually neglected. So it is perhaps wise that Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow chose to go with a straight-forward, unadorned style for their documentary on the legendary director, De Palma in order to put the spotlight on the subject rather than the director.

Formed from many interviews over a period of several years, De Palma reveals its first two tricks from the beginning. First, Baumbach’s and Paltrow’s voices are never heard, and for most of the documentary De Palma seems not responding to any specific question, simply recounting his experience on every single film over his almost fifty year career. Whether this increases a sense of connection with De Palma is hard to gauge, especially since the three directors are all friends, but it provides a greater sense of directness, in line with De Palma’s often confrontational oeuvre. The second trick is in the actual filming of the interviews. De Palma’s appearance doesn’t seem to change at all, continually wearing the same blue outfit and sitting in the exact framing used for the rest of the shots; the viewer could reasonably conclude that it was all shot in one afternoon and edited later. Through this, the filmmakers seem to be putting the emphasis on the films of De Palma and how he progressed through them rather than on the man himself, reinforced by the one break with this style at the end, where De Palma walks on the streets of New York, almost passing the torch as he nears the end of his career (however long it may continue after this documentary).

The choice of archival footage and photographs that for the most part takes precedence over the new footage is surprisingly eclectic. Beginning with the opening of Vertigo, one of De Palma’s earliest and most lasting influences, the documentary largely uses a mix of footage from the director’s films and various behind-the-scenes photographs, though some more intriguing footage, such as the Hitchcock or the original ending of Snake Eyes, is included. The most memorable images are shown (“Say hello to my little friend”, the prom, the climax of Blow Out) but they’re never shown in isolation, as De Palma frequently talks about the difficulties surrounding them rather than letting them sit as totems.

This, perhaps, is the most important function of De Palma. It is not necessarily a work of demythologizing, but it is a tribute and a view from the other side, a chance for De Palma to speak his thoughts freely on the controversial legacy, in terms of both the ardent defenders and vociferous detractors, that his work has created. He is candid about his failures and pleased with his successes, and the viewer never gets the sense that he is being insincere or trying to hide any dissatisfaction. De Palma is the view of a legendary director, but more importantly, it is a view of his work, all twenty-nine films to date in a neat chronological order, through perhaps the most important lens of all.

Sully

**** (Great)

Heroism is at once one of the easiest and the most difficult character trait to portray on the silver screen. It is practically the fundamental basis for the concept of the protagonist, but to convey it in a way that resists valorizing and empty praise is something else entirely. In Sully, the retelling of one of the most uniformly positive events in recent memory, the successful water landing of an Airbus A320 with no fatalities, Clint Eastwood achieves this and more, creating a profoundly mixed experience. It deals not only with the hero, but the world around him, never villifying but always probing to reveal the human nature of almost every figure, including the character of New York City. Through this series of portraits, Sully’s heroism becomes all the more satisfying and true to life—as in all legends, only through many trials can one become truly great, and in this manner the film mirrors its subject.

As the film opens, it unexpectedly displays without explanation what could have been, as Eastwood smash cuts between the opening credits and Sully’s nightmare of a disastrous attempt of an alternate attempt to land US Airways Flight 1549. It is only the first of many events that display what eventually becomes the driving conflict of the film: Sully’s relationship with his sudden fame, especially in light of the stressful circumstances. The first half of the film or so is a constant barrage of outside pressure, running the gamut from lighthearted media appearances to paparazzi to the source of conflict, an official investigation into whether the water landing and inevitable destruction of the aircraft was unnecessarily dangerous (stranding him in New York, across the country from his home in San Francisco). He is forced both by trauma and by habit—a handful of flashbacks back to Sully’s youth show both his consistent interest in flight and his continually quiet and serious temperament—to adopt a certain interiority, where his emotions are continually kept in check, and even the mostly reassuring presences of his wife Lorraine (Laura Linney, who manages to wrangle a full-fledged character despite never appearing without a phone) and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (a solid and at times hilarious Aaron Eckhart) do little to bring him out of his shell.

But under the uniquely determined and noble gaze of Tom Hanks, Sully never appears anything less than achingly human. One of the most successful gambits by Eastwood is his willingness to show Sully’s weaknesses and doubts, and Hanks responds in kind. The most remarkable aspect of his performance is his eyes, which convey a disconcerting mix of care, worry, fear, and even a hint of paranoia. Sully has good reason to be paranoid, of course, illustrated most starkly when he goes on a run in New York and stops in a bar where not only his face is plastered on the TV screen, but the owner has made a drink named after him (hilariously concocted from Grey Goose and water). But there is a great deal of nobility to him, a resolute manner that shines through and defines him, that unifies the film even more than the inciting incident that forms the centerpieces.

The other gambit that Eastwood undertakes is to play the already iconic moment three times, each roughly focusing on a different set of important people with Sully and Skiles forming the center in the cockpit. Though there is undoubtedly a cumulative power that builds on each, I found the first version the most viscerally impactful. All three are nevertheless hair-raising in their immediacy, primarily using tight close-ups mixed with expansive CGI shots of the airplane, and relies heavily on an expansive cast of air control operators, first responders, flight attendants, and passengers (some of whom are fleshed out in a beautifully simple manner just before the flight) to convey the urgency of the situation. Much of the second half—the first version occurs at around the midpoint, after the viewer has been submerged in Sully’s tenuous mindset—is taken up by these replays (to use Bordwell’s term), but none of them feel extraneous, developing the idea that Sully voices in the final scene, that he wouldn’t have been able to land the plane without every single person involved.

And the most important aspect of this statement is that Sully believes in this idea, and that the fundamental humanity that proves Sully’s correct judgment in front of the official investigation radiates out to every person. It is a profoundly honest film, willing to show for instance how some people panicked and nearly lost their lives trying to swim away from the airplane, or how the specter of 9/11 still hangs over the public consciousness. Eastwood’s use of footage of a reunion of the Captain and the lives he saved is an extension of this idea, showing that, as the landing showed, there is a fundamental heroism in humanity, whether it be in one figure or in all.