There may never be another lone gunslinger riding to the rescue quite like Clint Eastwood’s iconic character in the spaghetti western classics of the 1960s, or a lawman cleaning up the streets like his “Dirty Harry” of the 70s and 80s. But America and Hollywood have long loved tales of heroic individuals battling the odds from the frontier to the frontlines of every imaginable conflict scenario. Sometimes that involves acts of courage and/or sacrifice. Sometimes our action hero is a rogue figure (e.g. Jason Bourne, Jack Reacher) up against the system. Either way, they are on the side of right and we root for them to prevail.
Eastwood with few exceptions (e.g. The Dirty Dozen) generally worked alone. He wasn’t part of the 1960 classic The Magnificent Seven with its nod to the great Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. (The Antoine Fuqua remake, now in theatres after opening the Toronto film festival, adds little to the legend.) Eastwood has moved far beyond imitations of the western genre. At 86 he continues to inspire with a new film, Sully, that offers a contemporary version of the heroic individual mode.
Before turning to that, let me briefly note two movies released last month in which individuals take big risks on society’s behalf.
Brad Furman’s The Infiltrator (http://www.theinfiltrator.com/) features another terrific performance by Bryan Cranston as an intrepid undercover agent who infiltrates and takes down the money-laundering network of Colombia’s Medellin drug cartel headed by Pablo Escobar. (Cranston, best known for his drug-running role in the TV series Breaking Bad, was great in last year’s Trumbo and is also excellent as president Lyndon Johnson in the new HBO film All the Way.) The movie is based on the 1980s real-life exploits of U.S. Customs special agent Robert Mazur, whose eponymous 2009 autobiography details his “secret life inside the dirty banks” behind the cartel.
Off duty, Mazur (Cranston) was a devoted family man with a worried wife at home. To gain the trust of the cartel, their violent enforcers and amoral financial enablers, he had to create a brazen flamboyant character named Bob Musella who could sell himself as a high-rolling connection between the drug kingpins and the money men. Carrying a briefcase containing a recording device, he had to ace the deception. Any little mistake or false move could be fatal. Playing the part of a debauched fixer, in one seedy scene he nearly blows it and creates a fictional “fiancé” on the spot. That meant recruiting a rookie female agent into the act as bride-to-be “Kathy Ertz” (Diane Kruger), which also provided the setup for an arranged “wedding” climax. It’s not the only close call as Bob and Kathy work their wiles right up to Escobar’s top lieutenant Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt) and his family. In this high-stakes play there’s even a supporting role for Mazur’s Aunt Vicky (Olympia Dukakis) to embellish the illusion.
Mazur/Musella isn’t working alone, of course. In addition to “Kathy” there’s fellow undercover agent Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo) with whom he has a sometimes testy relationship, and a tough female boss, Bonni Tischler (Amy Ryan), to whom he reports, not to mention the backup team analyzing his surreptitious recordings and ultimately busting the suspects. But none of it would succeed without the high-wire performance of a very brave man putting his and his family’s life on the line.
In Imperium (http://imperiumthemovie.com/) from director and co-writer Daniel Ragussis, Daniel Radcliffe plays Nate Foster, an idealistic FBI agent who goes undercover as a skinhead neo-Nazi in order to infiltrate a radical white supremacist group that is considered a terrorist threat. Foster has been tracking a low-level jihadist suspect when his boss, Angela Zamparo (Toni Collette), impressed by his skills, puts him on this new case. The suspicion is that the far-right group might be trying to build a dirty bomb. Foster has to immerse himself in a dangerous world of extremism that includes hard-core belligerents, organized militants like the Aryan Brotherhood and the Klan, wealthy supporters like Gerry Conway (Sam Trammell), and right-wing web-radio host Dallas Wolf (Tracy Letts) who may have knowledge of the plot.
As Foster navigates the challenges of leading a dangerous double life, the movie becomes an unsettling political thriller exposing an underbelly of made-in-America racist hatred that cannot be blamed on immigrants or foreigners.
Eastwood’s Sully tells the true story of US Airways pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) who, with co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), famously crash landed a stricken aircraft in the Hudson River on Jan. 15, 2009, without any loss of life among the 155 passengers and crew. The feat became known as the “Miracle on the Hudson” and catapulted the veteran pilot to instant unwanted fame, at the same time making him the target of a high-pressure National Transportation Safety Board inquiry that questioned his judgement.
Drawing on Sullenberger’s memoir Highest Duty, the movie effectively recreates both the extraordinary events of the day of the crash of US Airways Flight 1549 from New York La Guardia to Charlotte, followed by rescue in icy waters, and the media frenzy of public hearings that accompanied the NTSB interrogation. Shortly after takeoff the routine flight was hit by a flock of Canada geese sucked into both engines disabling them. Losing altitude with no means of propulsion was a critical emergency situation in which Sully had to judge in a matter of seconds whether it was possible for the plane to return to LaGuardia or to reach a closer New Jersey runway. Deciding this wasn’t possible he chose a water landing as the least bad option, and incredibly he pulled it off. That did not satisfy some NTSB inquisitors whose second-guessing simulations suggested that Sully could have piloted the plane safely back to the airport.
Sully and Skiles were suspended from duty pending the outcome of the investigation, which ultimately vindicated the decision they made. (Had they tried to return to LaGuardia the result would have been a horrific crash into a heavily populated area.) The process in the heat of the public eye was extremely stressful for Sully, his wife Lorraine (Laura Linney) and family. The movie shows not only the moments of high drama but also the quieter personal ones in which Sully needs strength of character to cope with the heavy burden placed upon him. Hanks is perfectly cast in this role of the everyman reluctant hero who saves the day and is proved right. The real Sully and his wife, shown briefly at the end, could not have asked for better.
Outspoken director and co-writer Oliver Stone’s Snowden (https://snowdenfilm.com/), which got a gala presentation at the Toronto festival, contests far more controversial territory in celebrating the exploits of Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the Hawaii-based National Security Agency (NSA) contractor who exposed its secretive mass surveillance programs, fled to Hong Kong and ended up stateless in Russia which granted him temporary asylum. (He had hoped to get to Ecuador, the protector of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, but that proved impossible when his passport was revoked en route to Moscow.)
Snowden, the most famous, or infamous, whistleblower of our post 9/11 security-obsessed times, is clearly a heroic figure to Stone and to many on the left who believe that citizens’ civil liberties and privacy rights are being systematically and stealthily eroded by the American national-security state, as much if not more under Obama as under Bush. To the U.S. government and many Americans, Snowden is a traitor and a fugitive from justice who deserves not praise but harsh punishment (like the 35-year prison sentence given to Chelsea Manning who leaked confidential Iraq and Afghanistan war documents).
Obviously this is an important if by now familiar story. Gordon-Levitt gives a convincing low-key performance as Snowden, and Shailene Woodley adds some spark as Snowden’s liberal girlfriend Lindsay Mills who, despite some rocky periods in their relationship, followed him to Moscow. The movie opens with, and returns periodically to, the seminal June 2013 scene of the luxury Hong Kong hotel where Snowden met filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), activist journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and The Guardian’s Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson). Unfortunately for Stone, the actual circumstances have already been captured more effectively on screen by Poitras in the Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour.
Stone offers some backstory to indicate that Snowden was hardly the radical type prior to his road-to-Damascus break with authority. He’s portrayed as a pro-military conservative patriot and gun owner who joined the CIA as a brilliant recruit after trying out for the special forces. As shown in polygraph tests and encounters with security officials (notably two played by Rhys Ifans and Nicolas Cage), his loyalty is never suspect. It’s the scale of the NSA’s covert surveillance, including of ordinary Americans, the agency’s deceptions and misuse of a program he built that are presented as the reasons which led Snowden to betray that trust and go into exile.
Stone adds a few minutes near the end showing that after Snowden left the Hong Kong hotel he found protection for about a week in the city’s quarters housing poor refugees, evading U.S. authorities demanding his extradition until he made it on to that fateful Moscow-bound flight. And he gives the final spotlight to the real Snowden at one of his video-conference appearances where he is celebrated like a heroic freedom fighter. Yet, for all its bravado, the movie overall feels rather flat and sketchy.
Beyond a few postscript lines about what’s happened since Hong Kong, that aftermath is unexplored. It’s surely an irony that Snowden is stuck in Putin’s autocratic Russia which engages in surveillance and cyber-hacking while assaulting press freedoms. Stone suggested at the Toronto press conference that Snowden has been critical of the Russian government despite the precarious position of being its guest. But the film evades this and the larger issues at stake.
In that sense Stone’s Snowden is as disappointing as it is certain to provoke divided reactions. For Variety’s Owen Gleiberman it’s “the most important and galvanizing political drama by an American filmmaker in years,” while Benjamin Lee of The Guardian (the first paper to publish Snowden’s revelations) laments “it’s made with such limpness that a swift read of his Wikipedia page will prove far more exciting.” Too bad the latter is closer to the mark.