Hero-worship Burdens Biopics ‘Snowden’ and ‘Sully’

The change over from summer blockbusters to fall prestige has seemingly begun with two films which feel tailor made to be in the mix come nomination time. Sully, Clint Eastwood’s new movie about the Miracle on the Hudson arrived last week, while Snowden, the new film about Edward Snowden’s security leak from Oliver Stone is out this week. Both films are manufactured to take part in the awards season run. Both films feature big name actors playing familiar figures from recent history. And both ultimately left me asking why these movies had to be made.

There’s no doubt that the signature events in both films are easy to see as potentially cinematic. And when focusing on those moments, the films come alive with visual and narrative inspiration. The technical success of recreating the landing on the Hudson in Sully creates a truly visceral moment on screen. And in Snowden, the moment when Edward Snowden steals his data out of a government building is reminiscent of some of Hollywood’s best espionage thrillers. But those are relatively brief set pieces (about 20 minutes) in feature length films lacking a compelling central character or central theme within the narrative to encompass these impressive moments. Both these films detail such recent history, from people audiences have already seen speak in detail, these feature films are burdened with the undeniable feeling of simply recreating events captured better in other forms of media.

Sully attempts to tell it’s story in at least a more interesting way than does Snowden. The film starts just after the Miracle on the Hudson, with Sully (played by Tom Hanks) being investigated for the decision to make a water landing. Despite everyone surviving the crash, the airline investigators believe the decision was unnecessary. The film then goes back to retell the story of the crash…not once but twice. Snowden, on the other hand, attempts to tell a much longer story of Edward Snowden’s life…more than a decade, both personal and professional. And like Sully uses a framing device (the leaking of documents audiences saw in the documentary CitizenFour) to retell the story of why Edward Snowden leaked classified federal documents. But in the case of both these features, their desperation to simply recreate the past without demonstrating why these filmmakers were the right people to tell these stories this way, these films ring as Hollywood cashing in on real, significant events.

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

The trappings of Hollywood are especially notable with the casting of both actors playing the recognizable heroes. Sully never escapes the traps of being played by a true superstar like Tom Hanks. Despite dyed white hair and rare smile, this is Sully as played by Tom Hanks from start to finish. While it makes perfect sense to cast America’s favorite good guy as an American hero (reminiscent of Gary Cooper or Henry Fonda’s days as movie heroes), it is also uninspired, familiar, and embeds it more in Hollywood capitalism than true artistry. Hanks is good in his low-key performance, but never transformative in his performance, although that would be a hard task to accomplish with the lazy characterizations Eastwood offers Hanks in the screenplay.

Joseph Gordon Levitt’s performance in Snowden is far from low-key; rather it’s a great big attempt by an actor to give a significant performance. But he falls into the most common mistake of actors that happens in biopics; letting the superficial details control the performance so it is all surface and lacking any emotional core. Levitt, as happened with last year’s The Walk, allows the look and voice of his subject to dominate and distract his performance to such an extent it feels almost soulless. Much has been made of the mannered voice he uses, based on Snowden’s voice heard in CitizenFour. But as Snowden himself shows in the last minutes of this movie, that was a voice which came through when nervous or stressed. Levitt uses the voice throughout, except when he’s showing actual emotion, when he lets it drop off, sometimes entirely. Levitt is a good actor and at times captivating to watch, but struggles when balancing the physical realities of a character with emotional depth which is truly what gives a character their humanity. Levitt is never as compelling a character as Snowden himself has been on camera, both at the end of the film and in CitizenFour, which only reminds audiences what they’re missing.

CitizenFour is, in fact, the big question regarding the simple decision to make Snowden. What if no documentary had existed. One could imagine Stone would have been first in line to tell his film in that form; it would have made perfect sense for him as a TV documentarian. The film’s most visually compelling and thought-provoking moments are essential documentary elements within these recreations. All elements which suggest a documentary would have been a much better approach to the material and access available Snowden granted him.

Photo credit: Jürgen Olczyk / Distributor: Open Road Films

If we’ve learned anything about Stone from his other films, we should know that making a movie about a man he praises is not the best approach for the director. Stone is a man so compelled towards making propaganda that he can manage to make interesting movies when forced by the narrative to humanize characters he would personally despise. Characters like George W. Bush, Richard Nixon, and Gordon Gecko all require of Stone to have internal struggle regarding the characters which is lacking in this film. He didn’t need to find empathy because he already respected Snowden, and found no need to have empathy for Snowden’s detractors, making them big, cartoonish villains instead. All this ultimately renders the overall film limp and aimless.

Hero-worship is also a noticable problem for Eastwood in Sully. As a viewer it’s easier to see Sully from a one-sided perspective; unlike Snowden, he’s rarely been called anything less than a hero. But to justify the film simply existing, the movie needed far more tension between Sully and the investigators of the crash which didn’t simply amount to the juvenile bullying of an American hero the film depicts in unrealistic dialogue. The laziness from both Eastwood and Stone in the tone and perspectives clearly shows the problem with hero-worship in movies. In stories, heroes are boring, characters that do heroic things are compelling. Both directors approach their subjects as heroes from beginning to end, and clearly never waver in their devotion.

If choosing between the two films, Sully would probably be considered the better made of the two. The technical achievement of the crash sequence and simplicity of the story (not to mention brisk 96-minute runtime) helps to showcase Eastwood’s skills as a director and downplays the film’s significant flaws. Snowden, however, is probably more entertaining and creative, although few moments work as intended; moments which should play as tense results in laughter. But both films still result in an empty feeling when walking away after the lights go back up and left me wondering simply why so much money was spent on stories which have already been better told.


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