Monday, September 12, 2016

Reversing 9/11

It might have been a coincidence that Clint Eastwood's Sully was released just in time for the 15th anniversary of 9/11, but probably not. After all, the first responders and other bystanders must have had that seminal New York City event in their minds when they saw a plane go down in the Hudson River on January 15, 2009. How could you not. Airplanes flying too close to skyscrapers had been scarred in their memory. In our collective memory -- as a society, as a species.

The resulting rescue effort allowed heroes to arise, just as heroes arose (and sometimes gave their lives) on that September morning in 2001. The biggest hero that day did not "rise," but rather, descend, as Captain Chesley Sullenberger -- known to his friends, and soon to all of us, as Sully -- called on four decades of flying to assess (correctly) that a water landing might be possible after a bird strike knocked out both of his engines.

But what Sully's actions did that day were also to "reverse" 9/11, to give us a bit of wish fulfillment so unlikely that it seemed like it could only come from the movies.

Remember that unusual scene in Michael Haneke's Funny Games -- at least the American version (haven't seen the original) -- where the home invaders literally rewind the movie? Naomi Watts' character gets a leg up on one of them and shoots him, thereby steering the events toward a happy outcome for the tortured family. Instead, the other invader lunges for the remote control and rewinds the action to the point before she got that shotgun. This time, they don't slip up. Game over.

Sully operates like that, but in a positive way. The stuff on board the plane as it's going down is reminiscent of Paul Greengrass' United 93, in that characters recognize the fate that is about to befall them. As they did aboard flight 93 on 9/11, many hurriedly texted their loved ones what they assumed would be their final messages to them. Trying to look brave, but wiping away tears, and trying to wipe away their fear. Watching it, you are reliving that terrible fear all over again, the one Greengrass captured so poignantly.

But then ... they don't die.

None of them. Not a single one.

A couple sprained ankles and the like, and some near hypothermia in the river in January, but that's about it.

Which is of course the exact opposite of the number of people who died in each of the four planes that were hijacked on 9/11.

Well, it was enough to bring me close to tears on a number of occasions. Sully is the type of crowd pleaser that verges on the cornball from time to time, as might be expected from an 86-year-old conservative. Some of the execution and especially the music choices are reflective of an older person's mentality. But darned if this movie doesn't deliver on the exhilaration of surviving when you didn't think you were going to survive. The sheer emotional intensity of staring certain death in the face and not dying.

That story from nearly seven years ago was one of the happiest we'd seen in a decade, anywhere. It was fairly early on in my use of Facebook and I remember liking Sully's page. I used to get notifications about new material posted there every once in a while. Simply put, it was a story we wanted to keep reliving, to keep helping us heal from 9/11.

And we still are. I got emotional at the end of The Walk last year, as the very end is the only moment to draw an implicit connection to 9/11. And Sully got me too.

I wasn't in New York 15 years ago. But I was in New York 15 years and six months ago. I had lived there for nearly three years, part of which were spent working in the Wall Street area. In fact, I'd done some of my Christmas shopping in the mall that was under the World Trade Center.

We can't ever reverse 9/11. But movies like Sully help us deal with the grief and the psychological trauma that we -- collectively -- still hold close to the surface.

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