Last fall had and awful lot of films based on true stories and famous figures from our recent past, including Clint Eastwood's "Sully" and Oliver Stone's "Snowden." Let's do a little comparing and contrasting.
Eastwood's "Sully," which looks at the events around the "Miracle on the Hudson" plane landing in 2009, is a fairly straightforward tale of heroism. Tom Hanks plays Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, who with his First Officer Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhardt), landed US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River after bird strikes took out both of the plane's engines. The film recreates the entire dramatic flight, using the NTSB investigations into the accident as a framing device. Sully is placed at the forefront, grappling with PTSD, guilt, and his newfound status as a hero.
There's been some controversy about the film portraying the NTSB as actively trying to find pilot error when there was none, but it works great as a dramatic device, and helps the film to make its case in holding up Captain Sullenberger as a heroic figure. The recreation of Flight 1549, the water landing, and the rescue efforts are all thrilling to watch. Eastwood goes back to it three different times, each in a different context, and it works every time. Sully's subsequent troubles are considerably less compelling, though it impossible to find any character played by Tom Hanks unsympathetic. There's very little to Sully as a character beyond being a sterling American good guy, with a lovely wife, Lorraine (Laura Linney), who finds himself in extraordinary circumstance.
That lack of depth ultimately hurts the film a bit. "Sully" is told in terms that are a little too simple, and Clint Eastwood can't resist giving our hero a little extra vindication. The result is a feel-good film that feels like it's trying too hard to make the case for a figure that has largely been lionized in the American consciousness already. It's also hard to ignore that the film feels awfully light on content, though it runs a scant 96 minutes. I'm thankful that the flashbacks to Sully's early days as a pilot were kept to a minimum, but surely Eastwood could have dug slightly deeper into his personal life? Why not get poor Laura Linney off the phone for just a scene or two? Or simply give us more POV characters during the fateful landing?
"Snowden" doesn't have this problem. It chooses to dramatise how the NSA spying scandal first broke in 2013, with former NSA and CIA employee Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) meeting reporters Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and Glen Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) in Hong Kong. However, the bulk of the story takes place in flashback, tracing Snowden's career in the US intelligence community and his relationship with girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley). "Snowden" does an excellent job of getting across how invasive and damaging the government's spying activities were, but Stone goes a little too far in painting Edward Snowden as a heroic figure.
Edward Snowden, unlike Captain Sullenberger, is a controversial figure in many circles, and still living in exile in Russia. So Oliver Stone goes to bat for him in the film's closing moments, and goes to bat with everything he's got. The final scene is an intereview with the present day Snowden that transitions into a closing credits sequence laying out more arguments for his position, with a laudatory Peter Gabriel song on top. It's too much, and actually undercuts a fair bit of the film. Up until that point I found the storytelling a little clumsy, but it was a decent biopic. Joseph Gordon-Levitt does an uncanny cocal impersonation of Snowden, which went a long way toward helping him disappear into the part. However, the romance was pretty tepid, and I'd already seen the Oscar winning documentary "Citizenfour," so the 2013 scenes were awfully repetitve.
"Snowden" is at its best when the title character is acting as a guide to the intelligence organizations that employed him, their operations, their culture, and the fears that drove them. Watching the CIA and NSA employees at work is frightening, and Snowden wrestling with the moral and ethical implications is far more dramatic than what happens once he finally decides to go public. It's easy to see why Oliver Stone was interested in this material, but at the same time he makes some perplexing choices, and lets the story ultimately become too much of a polemic.
It's worth mentioning that Eastwood also put the real Captain Sullenberger at the end of "Sully," but was wise enough to keep the appearance limited to the credits.