Hero Narratives Close Summer at the Box Office

Fully transparent Hollywood release dates warrant a closer look. Bookending our 15th commemoration of 9/11 and coinciding with Ahmed Kahn Rahami’s botched terrorism attempts, directors Clint Eastwood and Oliver Stone offered up two hero narratives for review with predictably patriotic results – one film exploiting our continued sorrow for the exaltation of “New York’s finest”, the other redirecting our continued paranoia in its criticism of Big Brother. I’m extremely disillusioned with (and therefore deeply interested in) such an overt attempt at co-opting the tragedy and creating a veritable Heroes Week for the dramatic genre. So I decided to nurse an explosive hangover with a double feature at the AMC at Lincoln Square, vigilantly watching for suspicious kitchen appliances throughout my trip downtown.

The mononymous Sully and Snowden both follow their titular characters through their struggle justifying their actions to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and everyone in the world, respectively. Sully, as you’ll recall, is the pilot who landed the “miracle on the Hudson” following dual engine failure caused by suicidal geese. Snowden is the young computer genius who exposed the flagrantly shady practices of the NSA’s and CIA’s intelligence gathering. These brave men have a surprising amount in common – names that start with ‘S’; veteran status; intense patriotism; and their use as means to specific political ends which both director and subject appreciate equally.

In Captain Sullenberger, a native Texan played by Tom Hanks, we witness his dawning realization of pride in his own actions and the actions of his copilot, flight crew, and of the first responders – everyone receives their due mention. It’s a realization the audience shares with Sully after 90 minutes of arguments, flashbacks, and terrifying visions of his A320 crashing into midtown Manhattan as Sully imagines what could have happened had he attempted to return to LaGuardia. It’s not difficult to imagine what director Eastwood and co-author/subject Sully have in mind – in fact it’s even stated in the film. Sully has brought good news on aviation in New York and averted a new flight disaster reminiscent of that horrific Tuesday in 2001. The pilots, crew, passengers, scuba cops, flight control, and ferry boat captains all came together flawlessly to save all 155 souls onboard, thereby bringing about Sully’s prideful understanding of the of the coordinated efforts of the city of New York – “We all did it. We survived.” It’s a populist appeal to hard-nosed NTSB agents and applauding movie-goers alike – a testament to an Exceptional American pilot operating in that most characteristically American city for a patriotically-titled airline. Everyone can share in the warm-fuzzies that remind us of the bravery of first-responders and airline crew, of the disasters that were and the disaster that never was. It’s a happy ending the likes of which Hollywood hasn’t produced in a long time, and its success has been proven at the box office. Sully has already paid for itself in two weekends of showings, whereas Snowden seems unlikely to recoup anytime soon.

Sully was a surprisingly engrossing film despite that it lacked real content – the six minute flight was replayed twice for a total of 12 minutes’ of 90 which we already knew, and the arguments with the NTSB which form the bulk of the interpersonal drama apparently never happened, leaving Sully’s private doubts, visions of a 9/11-esque disaster, and his exclamation of pride in NY first responders as the most interesting and truthful content. This isn’t to say what Sully did wasn’t miraculous and praiseworthy, but the attempt by Eastwood to manipulate our feelings for New York and its tragedy is obvious.

Snowden presents an alternative take on topics of safety and patriotism, though Ed’s perspective is equally warped by 9/11 as Sully’s, citing that day as the most important in his life in interviews with anyone from fictional NSA recruiter Corbin O’Brian to nonfictional astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Additionally, we catch glimpses of tower rubble and Osama bin Laden as Ed (Joseph Gordon Levitt) waxes on the wide net cast by NSA intelligence gathering whereby targeted espionage expands from one person, to their 40 acquaintances, and their 1600 acquaintances, etc etc, until, obviously, the government is watching you – all thanks to anti-terrorism efforts run amok. This theme is woefully unexplored in the script – we’re simply told these practices are bad (which they are) and the people who support them somewhat villainous (which they are not). Perhaps there wasn’t room in the 2-hour film to investigate the deeply complicated reentry of paranoia into the American psyche and its subsequent practice by NSA officials wracked with guilt over 9/11 – though it does earn one small line.

There was, however, room for pontification on that supposed villainy. These kinds of monologues are common in Snowden and don’t do much to help us understand the seriousness of his sacrifice or witness the dilemma of a dedicated patriot wrestling with an instinctive passion for American ethics and his own transformative response to 9/11. This passion is reflected again in Snowden’s interviews with Neil deGrasse Tyson when asked to compare contemporary American surveillance gathering to that of the USSR – Snowden believes during the Cold War the United States held moral superiority over Russia for refusing to imitate (and outperform) their surveillance state and track our citizens. The only overt transformation mentioned in the film is Ed’s shift from conservatism to liberalism – as if you’d have to be a liberal to care about your inalienable rights. Snowden himself makes this connection several times with Tyson – associating radical adherence to the 4th amendment with “liberal” ideals, reflecting it again in the film as he sits with girlfriend Lindsey Mills and quietly cheers for Barack Obama’s 2008 election to the presidency. So despite the complexity of the topic and the vast amount of information to be covered, the film reads as simplistic a catalogue of NSA wrongdoings with interludes of Ed fighting with Lindsey or hiding in a hotel with Laura Poitras. There is little of the psychological questioning witnessed in Sully – the conclusions have already been drawn. Edward Snowden is a messianic figure whose silhouette burns against the Hawaiian sun as walks free with the sacred MicroSD card bearing proof of the NSA’s antics. An awkward cameo from Ed himself in the film’s final minutes only adds to this problem, offering a kind of seal of approval for Oliver Stone’s work as he smiles into a webcam and the credits begin to roll.  

The audience clapped at the end of this film, too. And who could blame them? The rhetoric in Snowden is intense, and Ed’s actions are equally brave and rebellious as Captain Sully’s – if not moreso. Sully had his moment thrust upon him, while Snowden arrived at his after years of questioning the highest powers of the country he was dedicated to serve. So why are audiences more willing to shell out for the short story they already know over the long story they probably still don’t understand? And why do reviewers corroborate that preference? Perhaps it’s a matter of timing and nobody wants to hear government criticism – especially as it relates to safety against terrorists – around 9/11. Or perhaps they’re tired of hearing Ed’s name, as the media endlessly hammered home the injustice of the NSA’s actions following Ed’s revelations. Or maybe Sully is just a better film, and Sully’s decision one we can all understand – if you told me I had to return to LaGaurdia, I’d probably crash my plane into the Hudson too.

No matter the reason, applause and post-show chatter seem to indicate that those who actually saw the films seemed to appreciate them equally. One woman said of Snowden that it tipped her perspective into positivity, while Sully’s accomplishments and oratory left another movie-goer speechless. The films seemed to serve their purpose as hero narratives involved in the structuring of our political awareness, with Eastwood pushing an agenda of exceptionalism and perseverance and Stone similarly questioning our current moral directives in light of our sacred democratic heritage. All this without more than one or two lines directly referencing the date which engendered their interest in these issues and the marketability of their films. Somehow films dealing directly with 9/11 no longer feel relevant – the directors looked back on that day with sidelong glances and unsubtle allusions as the media rightfully devotes to it their continued attention. It’s what audiences want – it’s what I want. We’re still reeling from that day’s consequences and enduring ideas – the pride and the paranoia; the hope and the sorrow. But Flight 93 and Zero Dark Thirty have come and gone, and the as of yet unplanned re-enactments of the events in New York and Virginia won’t come anytime soon. So for the time being, 9/11 becomes a plot device, fueling the Hollywood Industrial Complex in its authorship of these two films grappling with and exploiting these popular “post” 9/11 topics – aviation, terrorism, intelligence, veneration… I guess I buy it, even if the films themselves aren’t incredible. I’ll chalk that up to solid acting, nonlinear narratives, and moral pandering. These are powerfully uplifting stories.

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