Produced by Endgame Entertainment
Directed by Oliver Stone
Screenplay by Kieran Fitzgerald and Oliver Stone
Distributed by Open Road Films
Produced by Malpaso Productions
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Screenplay by Todd Komarnicki
Distributed by Warner Brothers
Anyone Hillary Clinton hates usually wins my admiration by default. Edward Snowden, then, should be at the top of my hit parade. Clinton’s icy regard for the former NSA programmer, now a fugitive from his former employers at the CIA for stealing 1.5 million phone and data records from them, seems motivated not merely by reasons of state but, as with most things Clinton, her own self-interest. You can’t help suspecting that she fears some of her own mysteriously missing cyberrecords are nestling in Snowden’s cache. Nevertheless, my sympathy for the computer whiz is severely limited. Yes, he did expose our government’s addiction to eavesdropping on citizens, but he did it in a way that puts us all at risk. By releasing the NSA cyberinterceptions, he alerted our enemies as to how thoroughly they were being monitored. These miscreants have since taken steps to frustrate U.S. surveillance, leaving our would-be guardians perilously in the dark and exposing our espionage operatives to extreme danger. Snowden has stated that he felt it necessary to expose the NSA’s dangerously totalitarian intrusion into the lives of average citizens. Others before him had tried to blow the whistle but were quickly shut down and subsequently found their careers terminally stymied. Surely, though, he could have done better than turning the files over to Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, left-wing journalists who write for the Guardian.
Snowden’s questionable decision doesn’t deter director Oliver Stone from presenting him as an unqualified hero. As played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Snowden is a selflessly ascetic missionary working for the common good. I gather from the books and articles that have tried to explain this young man that he may very well think he’s on a divine mission. But he may equally be deluded as a consequence of his exaggerated self-importance. Idealists are often their own worst enemies, as well as ours. Turn a spotlight on them, and they become grandiose. Prudence is too lowly a virtue for them, especially when it threatens the achievement of their lofty aims. Snowden’s arrogant adventurism may well have occasioned the deaths of innocent people, with more to follow.
To many on the left, Snowden is a little David slinging a large revelatory stone at the government Goliath. Among libertarians and some traditional conservatives, he’s the stalwart Ron Paul supporter resisting government overreach. The neocons, on the other hand, charge him with treason. He deserves life in prison or, had they their druthers, summary execution. Seems to me these folk, like Madam Clinton, have things to hide.
Snowden, who is now living in Moscow with his girlfriend as a guest of the Russian government, is the bright idealist of libertarian sympathies whose early patriotism soured into disaffection when he discovered how the minions of our techno-surveillance state actually operate. Working for the CIA and then the NSA, he observed the wanton intrusions into the private lives of citizens that his colleagues thought acceptable in the cause of security. Bitterly disillusioned, he reached for the whistle and blew it shatteringly. Of course, this wouldn’t have happened had the CIA and NSA exercised some respect for average citizens. But given the means to snoop universally, they couldn’t resist.
In the film, Snowden’s superior at the CIA (a Stone invention) takes pains to justify the agency’s behavior. Pointedly named O’Brian, he’s persuasively played as a dark Machiavellian figure by Rhys Ifans, echoing the O’Brien we meet in George Orwell’s 1984. After pointing out that it’s been 70 years since the end of World War II, he asks Snowden why there hasn’t been another global war, and then answers his own question: The surveillance conducted by the CIA and NSA is protecting us.
Here we reach the perennially fraught issue: How to balance the claims of state security with the citizenry’s right to privacy. In time of war, the latter has been expected to give way to the former. But when does giving way become surrendering your rights in perpetuity? Orwell dramatized this struggle chillingly with his novel’s Thought Police, who ruthlessly hunt down Thought Criminals. As a libertarian and an Ayn Rand admirer, Snowden is keenly aware of the tendency of governments everywhere to arrogate power in the stated cause of security. He’s also aware that, with security as their watchword, governments historically have trampled on the individual.
As Snowden, Gordon-Levitt seems pitch-perfect. His voice is soft and monotone, his eyes withdrawn behind his narrow-lensed spectacles as if he were eternally looking at the world through a bunker peephole. He appears to be something of a lost, paranoid soul, as does the actual Snowden when he shows up in the film’s closing scenes to provide some propaganda on his own behalf. Although Stone suggests otherwise with some soft-focused scenes of Snowden and his girlfriend walking in Moscow parks, there’s little doubt he’d like to come home, provided he doesn’t have to face the Gorgon wrath of Hillary Clinton.
There’s wrath on display in Sully also, and it’s even less warranted than Clinton’s.
Clint Eastwood has given us a cinematic account of Chesley Sullenberger’s astonishing aviation feat on the morning of January 15, 2009. Flying a 70-ton Airbus out of New York’s LaGuardia Airport, Sullenberger encountered a flock of Canadian geese that took an ill-advised turn into both of the plane’s jet engines. Within three minutes of takeoff, Sullenberger and his copilot found themselves gliding powerlessly 2,500 feet above Manhattan. What to do? Quickly determining he couldn’t keep the plane aloft long enough to return to LaGuardia or to reach nearby Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, he took the calculated but extraordinarily hazardous risk of a landing in the Hudson River on a winter’s morning with an air temperature of 20 degrees. In the event, he saved all of his 155 passengers, none of whom sustained serious injury. For doing so with exemplary calm and fortitude, he was rightly declared a hero.
Eastwood renders this episode a slice at a time as his cameras flash back and forth covering Sullenberger’s experience before and after the water landing. Eastwood spends most of his running time on the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) hearings that followed the aborted flight.
The staging, acting, and effects are all admirably handled. As Sullenberger, Tom Hanks delivers another of his patented quiet hero performances. In the subordinate role of Sullenberger’s first officer, Jeffrey Skiles, Aaron Eckhart is brave and deferential. By focusing on a selected handful of frightened passengers, the film conveys the suppressed panic that pervaded the cabin during the 3 minutes in the air and the 20 minutes it took to rescue everyone on board from the frigid river. Interleaved with these scenes are passages from the hearing chosen for their dramatic tension as Sullenberger and Skiles face the possibility of professional demise.
This is where the film oversteps the bounds of authenticity. Evidently, Eastwood thought he needed a villain to juice up the story and give it suitable commercial appeal. The obvious candidate for this role was the NTSB. Eastwood portrays its investigators as harshly skeptical of the soundness of Sullenberger’s decisions. He did something similar in American Sniper by creating an imaginary Syrian marksman of Olympian pedigree to play Chris Kyle’s adversary in Iraq. When there’s a profitable legend to be served, truth be damned!
The film begins with an Airbus flying low over Manhattan on January 2009. Too low. A wing swipes a skyscraper, and the plane begins to drop from the sky. This echo of the September 11 attacks is meant to unsettle us, and it does for a few seconds. Then Tom Hanks playing Sullenberger sits up in bed, aghast at the nightmare vision he’s just had the morning after his ordeal.
The film then hustles us into the auditorium used for the NTSB hearing. Sullenberger and his copilot are hardly seated when the lead investigator, the fictitious Charles Porter (played by the bull-necked Mike O’Malley), launches dark insinuations clearly designed to incriminate the pilots. They made the wrong choice, Porter suggests. They should have flown back to LaGuardia. The left jet was still operating, not disabled as Sullenberger had reported. They could have landed in Teterboro. Porter is unforgiving, his red, pugnacious face suffused with contempt.
Clearly, the fix is in. The pilots are to be scapegoated. Despite having heroically saved 155 lives, the plane’s destruction will be hung on them.
But why? We’re not told. Is it a matter of legal liability? Are the investigators secretly defending Airbus, LaGuardia Airport, or the air-traffic controllers from a major lawsuit? Would blaming the pilots help anyone? Surely, they had neither the deep pockets nor the insurance coverage to meet the enormous costs of a malpractice suit.
Neither Eastwood nor screenwriter Todd Komarnicki bothers to explain why the men are being railroaded. This is understandable: It didn’t happen. According to members of the inquiry board and other witnesses, there was nothing contentious at the hearing. Quite the reverse. Investigators quickly concluded that, given what he was up against, Sullenberger acted correctly. True, some of the postflight simulations indicated the plane could have made it back to LaGuardia, but only if Sullenberger had made the decision to try to do so almost from the instant the geese took out his engines. Even then, the risk would have been enormous.
Not only is this portrayal dishonest, but it could put future flights in jeopardy. As the NTSB has protested, should the film’s account be credited, pilots will be inclined to be less forthcoming in future investigations. Fearing for their jobs, they’ll prefer to fudge the facts in order to put themselves in the best light possible. This will subvert the intention of postaccident hearings, which is to prevent future recurrences. But what does this matter to people like Eastwood, who rarely if ever fly on regularly scheduled commercial flights out of LaGuardia?