Tom Hank”s character, the real life hero Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, has a fortune cookie fortune that he looks at in one scene of this film. “Better a delay than a disaster”.  I feel a little bit as if this describes my relationship with the movie, I wanted to see it but put it off for almost a month. After the screening, I felt as if it would have been a disaster if I’d missed this movie. This is a film and a story right up my alley. It is a true life drama, with a humble hero and a group of people who all did whatr they were supposed to do. The outcome is one of the amazing stories of modern aviation.

Having recently listened to a lengthy podcast in which the work of director Clint Eastwood was somewhat criticized, I may have lowered my expectations a bit. I did think “Jersey Boys” was a misfire but “American Sniper” was an effective film about the Iraq war and the toll it took on multiple people. It was dramatically shot and there are some incredibly tense scenes in it. This film is directed in a straightforward manner as is most of Eastwood’s work. The fact that the near disaster at the center of the story remains clear and coherent is mostly a result of choices the director made about how to film it. One criticism that came up was that the side stories that explored some of Sully’s background were confusing in time and story placement, well I did not find that to be the case at all. [That is mostly the screenwriter’s responsibility]. There is a little bit of ambiguity about the process of the NTSB and how long that hearing process took, but that is hardly confusing to the story.

I did think that the script went a bit of a ways to create drama from the investigation but you have to have a little dramatic license to give the film a narrative backbone. The real themes of this film are about self doubt and doing your job. Until Arron Eckhart and Tom Hanks know what the voice recorder and aviation data reveal, there is enough doubt for even a confident man to wonder if something else could have been done. “Sully” and co-pilot Jeff Skiles knew they did the right things but only from the inside. There is plenty of PTSD to go around between them, but except for some nightmares about what might have happened if they had acted differently, we all feel confident as well.

The other theme of this movie was well expressed at the end by Captian Sullenberger when he deferred credit. It was not he alone who was the X factor. Every crew member did their job well. The cabin crew remained calm as they prepared the passengers, the passengers followed directions and helped each other, the ferry captains acted immediately and saved lives by doing so, the water rescue tem from the NYPD was in place and doing their jobs as well. I recommended another Aaron Eckhart film from a few years ago based on the same premise. “Battle L.A.” may not be a great movie, but it was great at showing how when people work together, and do their jobs to the best of their ability, the outcome is more likely than not to be success.

Hanks and Eckhart both are low key and credible as the professionals who made a difference that day on the Hudson and above. They also rock those mustaches that the real heroes appear to favor. Laura Linney as Sully’s wife does not get to do much more than talk on the phone, but it worked pretty well as a dramatic device, especially that first call after the landing. The technical crew who shot the effects and then put together a set to work on in the water are deserving of some respect as well. This was a very realistic depiction of the “forced water landing”.  In the long run, the movie does not have deep messages to impart to us, it just gives us a good condensed version of events that we can marvel at and appreciate, as we look at real people who deserve to be called heroes, even if they don’t see themselves that way.

Mr. Holmes

The conceit of this movie is that Sherlock Holmes was a real person and that his life of private consulting was well known due to the writings of Dr. Watson. There are movies made about him and and tourists flock to his supposed address and he is now 93 in 1947 England. From that premise we proceed into a personal mystery that Holmes is trying to unravel before his death. He is also plagued with senility that fogs his memory, much in the manner of early stage Alzheimer’s disease. The character of Sherlock Holmes is in the public domain at this point. The estate of Conan Doyle controls ten stories but any person with enough creativity can invent and publish or produce a Holmes tale. That may account for why he has been one of the most widely portrayed fictional characters in cinema. This movie is sort of a coda to his adventures and it is primarily a vehicle for the amazing Sir Ian McKellen.

Many years ago, I heard a critic (Rod Lurie) refer to these English produced character pieces as “tea on the lawn pictures”.  I understand completely the idea behind that description, so many films in this vain offer no action, subtle drama, and an overriding sense that the locations are the primary purpose for people watching this. Anyone hoping for McKellen to throw down like Gandalf or Magneto need not bother showing up for this film. It is languidly paced and beautifully composed and an intricate character study across a thirty year chasm in the life of the world’s greatest detective. If you are willing to listen however, you will be rewarded by some clever dialogue, intricate plotting and an ultimately warm story of old age and regret. Oh, and that is not to mention a spectacular performance by a seasoned actor in a tailor made part.

Admittedly the quiet countryside and remote farm that Mr. Holmes now occupies will meet the criteria of a “tea on the lawn” movie. There are even several scenes involving the consumption of tea but they never take place out of doors so that label would be a misnomer. Holmes is trying desperately to halt his oncoming memory loss and restore enough of his powers of observation, to help him complete the true story of his last case. He is dissatisfied with the version told by Dr. Watson, and he knows that it must be wrong because there is no other logical way to explain his retirement from the practice of detective work thirty years earlier. As he tries to solve the mystery of that case, he is simultaneously working with the son of his housekeeper to preserve the apiary he keeps and discover what is causing an outbreak of deaths among the bee colony. At the start of the film it seemed unlikely that this would be an older mentor type of story but that is what it morphs into and that is when the story becomes emotionally involving. The partial details and slow reveal of the tale from original mystery from 1917 are not particularly compelling. That is because the story is dribbled out in small bits and we never get a chance to relate to anyone but Holmes as the information appears. When the plot becomes the subject of a manuscript that Holmes shares with young Roger, then we have the motivation to pay attention and appreciate the detective work.

The performance of Ian McKellen is truly excellent. It is easy to accept him as the sixtyish Holmes in the flashback parts of the story. He is in reality about half way between the two ages that he plays here. The younger version has the strong posture of an older but still vigorous man. His back is straight and his head is up. Simple make-up and hairstyle work add to the illusion of a younger man, and his manner is more forceful and articulate. As the much older 93 year old, McKellen gets the physical parts just right. He is slower in all things, his facial expressions often belie a humor that the younger version of himself would not approve of. Again the low key make up work is effective while being impalpable. This helps immensely with the drama as the sadness of lonely isolation has taken a toll on the main character. As a victim of increasing senility, his face needs to covey the kind of vacant expression of someone who is intellectually trapped inside a failing organ like the brain. Sir Ian is  very persuasive in conveying that tone. It is dangerous to make early predictions about awards at the end of the year, so many other delights await us, but it is highly likely that this will be another nominated performance for him.

Young Milo Parker is an effective foil for McKellen to sharpen his performance with. As Roger, Parker conveys the kind of sharp wit and openness to tutelage that an old Sherlock Holmes would need to stir himself. He is also quite believable as the somewhat truculent child of a war widow struggling to keep her and her son’s heads above water after the war. The tension that comes from having to be nursemaid to the infirm old man when that is not really what she is being paid for makes the mother character seem unpleasant, when what she really is is desperate herself. I was happy to see Laura Linney in that part. She has worked so much in television recently that her absence from the big screen has been notable. She is all wound up temper and frustration through much of the film and when she gets a chance to release those emotions it does stir the drama up in the last act. I was also impressed with the music of Carter Burwell who has collaborated with director Bill Condon on several earlier films. I wonder if it was his work that is being played on the “glass armonica” featured in the story.

“Mr. Holmes” is a slow moving but very rewarding film. It will appeal to independent cinema fans of course but it looked to me from the audience that I saw it with that it is resonating with a different group. People over the age of fifty filled the theater today (personal disclaimer, that will include me). Everyone was very receptive to the film and there was a nice round of applause at the end of the movie. This is not a common occurrence in films, much less ones that attract a geriatric audience, but it is another indicator that there may be hope for this movie at awards time. The Academy is notoriously old and this demographic is served very well by this high quality production. I don’t think my appreciation for this movie is simply a counter reaction to having to endure “Minions” and “Terminator Genysis” earlier this month. I simply think this is one of the best films I’ve seen this year.