“Sully” Sucked, But It Didn’t Have To


I wanted to love Sully, the 2016* film starring Tom Hanks and directed by Clint Eastwood about airline pilot “Sully” Sullenberger successfully executing an emergency water landing on the Hudson River, but I couldn’t because the movie was crummy. And what grated as I watched: it didn’t have to be.

Critics and audiences liked Sully a lot more than I did. Maybe I’m being too picky. But, I suspect a significant chunk of the positive feeling toward the movie is connected to positive feelings for Sullenberger the man. I share many of those feelings, which is a reason why this crappy movie rankles. Sully deserved better.

To recap (spoiler alert): Sullenberger and crew took off from LaGuardia Airport on a cold winter morning with 155 people on board. At about 2,800 feet, the passenger jet passed through a flock of Canadian geese and suffered “bird strikes” that destroyed both engines. Sullenberger and co-pilot Jeff Skiles ran through options (trying to return to LaGuardia or re-route to nearby Teterboro), and decided their best option was to attempt a water landing. They pulled it off, and all 155 on board survived.

So why did the film crash and sink? First, it suffered from the malady that afflicts many “this really happened” stories. When people already know the outcome of an event, it can be difficult for filmmakers to generate drama. When joining the project, Eastwood reportedly wondered where the antagonist was. Rather than thinking deeper about the story they should tell, Eastwood and company just made one up.

Second, it suffered from self-inflicted wounds. For example, the film opened with a sequence where a passenger jet crashed into New York City buildings. It was a frightening reminder of the 9/11 attacks, but it was a terrible choice for this film because it didn’t happen. It was a nightmare suffered by the film’s version of Sully. I haven’t read the source material, but I assume the scene was based on his actual nightmares. But…

Third, the real-life events were a triumph of teamwork, preparation, and training. The water landing was the culmination of Sullenberger’s lifetime of work and attention to detail. It was a symphony of teamwork between him and Skiles, as well as the calm, swift actions of the flight crew, air traffic controllers, ferry boat drivers and rescue workers. By focusing on Sullenberger’s nightmare and post-traumatic stress disorder, filmmakers introduced a sourness that pervaded everything.

Fourth, while making a “this happened” story, filmmakers scabbed on a happy ending by creating a preposterous scene that never happened.

In short, Sully was a bad movie because of storytelling decisions.

How could it have been good? How could the film have mined drama from a brief event where the outcome is known?

By shifting the focus.

Sully Sullenberger, the person, was extraordinary. He was among the best at nearly everything he tried to do for nearly his entire life. He studied and worked and trained, and eventually became so good at flying aircraft that he became a trainer and safety investigator.

His co-pilot, Jeff Skiles, had a story. So did the flight attendants who helped implement safety protocols that got every passenger off the plane alive.

I can see several different ways to attack the story, all of which could have been dramatic, interesting, and remained true to the lives of these heroic people.

One option would have been a biopic of Sullenger. Show his upbringing, his schooling, his learning to fly, his intense training. Those sequences can carry some drama because each of those steps is about a determined person overcoming obstacles in pursuit of a goal. What might have been cool was to craft the scenes in such a way that they highlight the reality that no person is truly self-made (a point Sullenberger makes in speeches), and that teamwork is essential in nearly every human endeavor (another point he makes).

Another option would have been to have multiple story lines about key figures in the water landing and safely getting all passengers out of the airplane. This could have opened rich lines for storytelling, because many people were involved in the rescue, and and at least some of them have interesting stories worth telling.

There are still other storytelling options, all of which could have centered around the core lessons to be drawn from Sullenberger’s life: work hard, prepare, and collaborate.


The Opening Line Problem


I’m working on the final revision to my mystery novel, which will be available for purchase in about a month. This is supposed to more of a proofread — just double-checking for typos, misspellings, wrong words, etc. But as I keep reading, there’s a thought nagging at me: the story is starting in the wrong place.

Back story: Many revisions ago, I kidnapped a chapter from the middle and lashed it to the front of the book. Chapter 1. Why? I loved the opening line it gave me:

As best I can remember it was the first time I’d awakened naked and face down in a pool of my own blood.

See what I mean?

Chapter 1 then became about the protagonist extracting himself from a no-tell motel — an event that actually happened in the middle of the story’s timeline. Chapter 2 leaps back a few weeks to the “beginning.” From there the story is told chronologically.

This is a fairly common dramatic technique, and it worked for me as I wrote the book. But now? I’m thinking it might be better pluck what’s now Chapter 1 and replant it in its original home — Chapter 13. That means I have to write a new opening.

Which isn’t really that big of a problem. It just wasn’t what I expected to be doing at this point.

The real challenge, of course, will be crafting a new opening line. And, I admit I’m more than a little nutty about opening lines. I often wander bookstores reading opening lines to see what grabs me. I’ve read dozens (maybe hundreds) of books out of my normal reading genres based strictly on a killer opening.

Some of my favorites:

  • Call me Ishmael. — Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
  • The office of the university president looked like the front parlor of a successful Victorian whorehouse. — Robert B. Parker, The Godwulf Manuscript
  • Maman died today. Or maybe yesterday; I can’t be sure. — Albert Camus, The Stranger
  • When the car stopped rolling, Parker kicked out the windshield and crawled through the wrinkled hood, Glock first. — Richard Start (Donald Westlake), Backflash
  • All this happened, more or less. — Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five
  • You better not never tell nobody but God. — Alice Walker, The Color Purple
  • He was awake a long time before he remembered that his heart was broken. — Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls
  • I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice — not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God. — John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meaney
  • It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. — George Orwell, 1984
  • I am an invisible man. — Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
  • If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. — J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
  • I was arrested in Eno’s Diner. — Lee Child, The Killing Floor
  • I sat across the table from the man who had battered and tortured and brutalized me nearly thirty years ago. — Lorenzo Carcaterra, Sleepers
  • It was a diamond all right, shining in the grass half a dozen feet from the blue brick wall. — Dashiell Hammett, The Dain Curse
  • When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man. — Richard Stark (Donald Westlake), Firebreak

That’s enough for now.

Writing Lessons from Kennedy Center’s Page-to-Stage Festival


On Monday, the Kennedy Center dropped curtain on its 12th Annual Page-to-Stage festival — a weekend of script readings and open rehearsals of plays and musicals being developed by DC-area theater companies. I’ve been going for awhile now, and I watched all of two live reads and part of another this weekend.

The two I watched in full — Ella Fitzgerald: First Lady of Song and The Music of Nina Simone — have great potential as the individuals involved in those productions continue to raise money and do the work necessary to bring them to the stage. The “partial watch” play — Civilizing Lusby — has a good premise (and therefore good potential), but didn’t hold my attention.

For a writer, live reads are useful because they put the spotlight on the written word. There’s no staging or pyrotechnics or spectacle to distract from what the writer has put to paper. That’s slightly less true in musicals, such as the two diva plays, because there’s singing (and the singing was fantastic), but most of the audience’s experience is in hearing actors speak words and in hearing a narrator read scene descriptions.

Here are some writing lessons I took from the weekend:

  1. Thou shalt avoid exposition. Don’t write anything “so the audience will understand.” A couple years ago, I saw a Page-to-Stage read of a play about Lincoln. There were lines like, “Hello Mary, my dear wife of 19 years…” In the Ella production, there were multiple lines of dialogue that had characters saying they were backstage at X venue or saying what year it was or talking about another character using first and last name. The trouble with these lines is that a) they’re boring; and b) the delivery ends up being stilted because they’re not words actual humans would speak. Work necessary exposition into the story as ammunition for conflicts.
  2. Thou shalt get to the point. In Civilizing Lusby, the first 10 pages or so were devoted to a family dispute about a rambunctious teen aged girl who smiled at too many men for her mother’s comfort. Yawn. There was a little tidbit thrown in about the father needing some banker’s son on his side for something, which I assume they got to later on because I left at that point. According to the description in the program, the play was about a Chesapeake waterman taking his revenge after a couple businessmen have his shack condemned so they could build a railroad. The high-spirited daughter flirting with every man she meets was worth a couple minutes — not the first 10.
  3. Thou shalt present characters, not characterization. Civilizing Lusby did this best. The wild girl, the disapproving mother, the adoring father trying to be stern for the sake of his wife but not quite making it — these felt like real people. The Nina Simone show did a reasonable job as well, presenting a first-person “as told by” story that gave her take on her story. The Ella Fitzgerald show — not so much. They characterized her by talking about the pictures on her dressing room wall, having her fire her cousin/assistant, and having her say “shit” now and then. But, the non-linear presentation left the feeling that Ella mainly had stuff happen to her — NOT that she was an active and aggressive force in achieving personal goals. Which leads me to…
  4. Thou shalt give your protagonist clear goals. The contrast between the Nina Simone and Ella scripts couldn’t be more evident on this one. At any point, the director could have called a stop and asked the audience what Simone wanted. The answers would have flowed — to be the first black classical pianist, to get into Curtis, to find love, to avoid the IRS, to come to peace with her father, to contribute to the Civil Rights Movement…and so on. Simone had a series of goals that shifted as she moved through her life — many of which she failed to achieve. But, the point here is that the audience always knew what they were. Not so, in Ella’s story where she never seemed to want anything except to “sing pretty for the people.” They presented major events in her life, of course, but Ella seemed almost a bystander to them, not the cause of those events. While that can happen “in real life,” it a) makes for bad drama, and b) is unlikely for someone who accomplished as much as she did in life.

Those are the lessons I got from Page-to-Stage this year — avoid exposition, get to the point, create characters NOT characterization, and give your characters clear goals.