Sully: Reflections on the movie

I recommend Sully if you haven’t seen it yet.

In 2009, Chesley Sullenberger’s US Airways airbus lost both engines, forcing him to make an emergency landing in the Hudson River. All onboard survived.

Starring Tom Hanks and direct by Clint Eastwood, the movie is primarily a character study with the FAA investigation as the backdrop. The rest of this post is a spoiler, so avert your eyes if you haven’t seen the movie yet.

There are two things in this movie that struck me. Landing a plane in the Hudson was a risky move. No one died, but people could have. Why didn’t Sully just return to the airport? The FAA wanted to know.

The FAA’s computer simulations showed that Sully could have safely landed the plane on the runway. Sully disagreed, and under immense pressure proved his case.

Ultimately, Sully is a movie about being human. Computer simulations are simplified mathematical models of real world events. These simulations are to real life what Plato’s cave shadows are to reality itself.

Sully pointed out that he had four decades of flying experience. He knew what the situation was, and what course of action would maximize the chance of saving lives. A computer generated cartoon doesn’t know that.

In the digital age, this is an observation we must remember not to forget.

Sully’s humanity is also seen in his discomfort with being called a hero.

Yes, he did something tremendous. But the hero narrative falsely portrays heros as acting alone. Sully is quick to point out that it wasn’t just him. There was the crew – the co-pilot and flight attendants. There were the passengers who cooperated as they fled the plane. There were the air traffic controllers. And there are the first responders, the Coast Guard, the NYPD, and others.


The Intern: Another Tangential Movie Review

Robert De Niro is best known for his mafia tough guy roles, but in The Intern he’s a sweet old man. Jules (played by Anne Hathaway…sorry, Jess) runs a successful eCommerce fashion website that she created from the ground up. Ben is retired and bored, so he applies for an internship for senior citizens.

The movie is cute and funny, though not Oscar material. But that’s not what I’m here to write about. I’m here to go off on a tangent.

The Intern makes has a few points to make about 21st century culture. Ben is a relic from the Mad Men era, that generation whose values were pushed aside as the counterculture came to the forefront in the late 1960s. That cultural shift was a good thing in many ways, but maybe we did throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Ben has cast aside many old fashion notions. He defends Jules’s hard working and decisive management style, telling a group of stay at home moms that she broke the glass ceiling. Ben tells Jules that she doesn’t have to tolerate her husband’s affair as a price for being more successful than he is. Ben is emotionally sensitive and isn’t afraid to cry while watching a tearjerker.

But Ben hasn’t left behind the good manners that Baby Boomers and younger generations have forgotten. He also understands technology’s limitations. When one young man in the office laments that a woman he’s interested in won’t respond to him even though he’s texted her “like, a billion times,” Ben simply asks the young man if he’s tried talking to her. Ben is a man who was married for 42 years before his wife died, and when he meets a woman close to his age (played by Rene Russo) he calls her without making her wait a few days.

His young coworkers are amused that Ben shaves and puts on a tie before going to work. In one scene, Ben is wearing a suit and tie while three young men are dressed in t-shirts and hoodies. Jules notes that today it’s considered sexist to refer to women as girls, though men are now often referred to as boys. Cue the too casually dressed young men looking embarrassed as they glance at Ben’s suit.

Young women, Jules continues, grew up in an era of girl power, and maybe the boys were forgotten. My two cents is that it’s more than that: today’s young men were raised in an era of “boys are stupid, throw rocks at them.”

The point The Intern seems to make is that today’s embrace of equality is a good thing, though the process is incomplete. But today’s culture made a mistake when it got too casual, casting aside good manners, dressing well, taking relationship commitments seriously, and treating others with respect.

Grandma & Rita. Also, Nurse Jackie: Another Mixed Up Not Quite Movie Review

I don’t really write movie reviews. I’ll say I liked a movie without saying exactly why, then I’ll point to something about the movie that made me think, and I’ll go off on a tangent. So bear with me. Oh, and spoilers everywhere.

Grandma stars Lily Tomlin as grandma, aka Elle Reid. I’ve loved Lily Tomlin since I was a little kid. In the 1970s she would guest star on Sesame Street as a character my sisters and I called the retarded girl. I know, not a nice thing to say. And not something I’d say today as an adult and a social worker.

Tomlin sat in a giant rocking chair, dressed like a child. It was a skit she had done since the early ’70s on Laugh-In. As a five year old watching Sesame Street I thought she really was a child, but I knew something wasn’t quite right. My mother claimed that Tomlin wasn’t small. Instead, the chair was big. But Jean Piaget told us almost a century ago that little kids don’t get stuff like that. Hence a child’s conclusion that Tomlin had special challenges.

Lately she’s played Frankie in the Netflix comedy Grace and Frankie, which is about two women whose husbands divorce them for each other. It’s an ingenious and hilarious look at gay marriage.

But I digress.

In Grandma, Tomlin’s granddaughter Sage is pregnant and has decided to have an abortion. The film doesn’t hem and haw over a choice that’s she’s already made, nor does it debate the issue. The problem is finding enough money to pay for the abortion. Bravo.

Grandma is really about women mending relationships. There’s grandma’s grief over the death of her long time partner and fear of committing to the new woman in her life. And there’s grandma’s broken relationship with her daughter while Sage deals with similar mother-daughter issues.

But in the tradition of feminist films such as Thelma & Louise and Maleficent, every man in Grandma is either an asshole or is useless.

Sage’s boyfriend is an irresponsible kid with a beard that looks like an armpit on your face (I laughed out loud at that line). When grandma tells the boy that he is responsible for half the cost of the abortion, he threatens her with a hockey stick. So she grabs it and slams him in the nuts.

Later, grandma finds her ex-husband (played by Sam Elliott), and he manages to extort a kiss from her in exchange for loaning her the money. But then he tries to extort sex. And once he finds out what the money is for, he adamantly refuses because grandma aborted their child 50 years ago without even telling him she was pregnant.

The only (presumably) decent man in the film is married to a woman with a women’s studies degree, but she won’t let him speak.

Still, I enjoyed the film Grandma (and Themla & Louise and Maleficent), and I recommend seeing it.

But Grace De Rond, writing for the Good Men Project, asks “Why Is America the Home of Male Bashing?” She married a man from the Netherlands, and she writes about questions he had when he first experienced American culture first hand. “Why was Papa Berenstain clumsy and over-reactive? And why was he portrayed as a poor husband and dad?” I would add, why is every TV dad a variation of Homer Simpson?

De Rond observes that “This stereotyping of males was new to him because his country doesn’t have a male bashing culture.”

The Danish TV show Rita (which Netflix said I’d like because I watched a Swedish film) illustrates De Rond’s point.

It’s a great show about a nonconformist teacher who really cares about her students, but whose personal life is a bit dysfunctional. Rita’s ex-husband is a narcissist who isn’t involved in the lives of his kids. He left Denmark for London long ago.

Rita is flawed too, however. Yes, she cares about her students. But she’s unable to maintain adult relationships. The headmaster, Rasmus, is a kind man who’s looking for a relationship. But Rita just can’t maintain it, even though Rasmus is great with her kids, one of whom is her gay teenage son.

Rasmus ends up leaving Rita for a woman who’s serious about wanting a relationship. Meanwhile, there are plenty of cads hitting on Rita.

Finally, though Rita’s heterosexual son is a somewhat irresponsible young man, upon becoming a father he does a 180 and become a devoted husband and father.

Rita’s fellow teacher is a young woman who grows personally and professionally as the show goes on. She also struggles with a boyfriend who might not be up to the task of fatherhood, but he eventually comes around too.

My point is that Hollywood has long featured women in push up bras and low IQs, and feminist themed films turn the tables on that. But from what I’ve seen of Scandinavian film and TV, there’s far less gender stereotyping and more character complexity. No wonder De Rond’s husband looked at American culture and was like, seriously?

But there’s hope. The American cable TV show Nurse Jackie features a Rita-like lead character who goes the extra mile for her patients, but who totally fucks up her personal life because of drug addiction. But she tries her hardest to turn her life around.

Her husband (and then ex-husband) is not perfect either. But he is a devoted dad who provides his daughters with some stability. The show has other positive male characters as well.

One of the most interesting characters, however, is Zoey. In the first season she’s nurse fresh out of school, a callow and naive girl. But her character develops bit by bit, and suddenly you realize she’s become a professional and in-charge woman who fills the professional void Jackie has left behind.

Black Mass: A Sort of Movie Review (Kinda)

Johnny Depp is a great actor. Though I think Harrison Ford is an awesome guy too, pretty much he plays the same character is every movie. Stoic. Taciturn. Self-interested. But Johnny Depp plays a wide range of characters.

In Black Mass, Depp is Boston gangster Whitey Bulger. Though a Kentucky native, Depp nails the Southie accent. This matters to me as a Mainer because Hollywood usually gets the Maine accent very wrong, and they’re not much more skilled with Boston.

Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Whitey’s brother Billy, does a decent job with the Southie accent too, especially considering that Cumberbatch is British. Oddly, I thought Julianne Nicholson’s accent sounded fake, even though it turns out that she’s from Medford, north of Boston.

Where was I? Oh, yeah. Black Mass is a great movie that I really enjoyed. I know, it’s not Goodfellas, but it’s not trying to be.

Of everything I could say about Black Mass, I want to focus on Billy Bulger. The movie’s not about him. His brother, Whitey, was the mobster. But to be a mobster takes not only brutality, but also intelligence. Billy was as brilliant as his brother, but he chose Boston College over organized crime. A Massachusetts state senator, and later president of the University of Massachusetts system, his career ended when it was revealed that he had a phone conversation with Whitey, who was on the lam at the time.

Obviously, I don’t know Billy personally. But the movie portrays him as an honest man who loved his brother, despite Whitey being a murderer.

Should Billy have turned his back on Whitey? I’m not entitled to answer that question. Only Billy is.

But I do respect what a tough choice that is, and I have no judgment of Billy for risking his career to talk with his brother. And Billy did apologize for the pain Whitey caused the families of his victims. But let’s not forget that Billy was put into an untenable situation not of his choosing. I respect his dilemma and tough choices, and I couldn’t have handled it any better (probably worse).

Ex Machina: When Computers Are Human

Spoiler alert! Don’t say I didn’t warn ya.

Is consciousness an emergent product of brain activity, or is consciousness derived from the soul? Ignoring the dichotomous nature of this question, it’s one philosophers and scientists have wrestled with for millennia, and continue to wrestle with.

Let’s add filmmakers to the list. The movie Ex Machina (now available digitally or on DVD if you still have one of those) creatively explores the question of how you would know that a computer is, in effect, human.

Alan Turing first posed the question. A mathematical genius who was invaluable to the Nazis defeat in World War II, he created one of the first modern computers to break Nazis codes and provide invaluable strategic information to the Allies. So the British government rewarded him by driving him to suicide because he was gay.

The film The Imitation Game is another must see, if you haven’t already. I enjoyed it more than Ex Machina, if only because as a middle aged man I find dramas more compelling than science fiction (though I haven’t forsworn that genre).

Ex Machina is about an ordinary employee who wins an opportunity to spend a few days with the rich but eccentric owner of the company for which he works. Obviously, this guy never watched The Big Lebowski. Otherwise he’d have thought, “Wait, didn’t the Dude teach us to never trust rich folks and their nefarious schemes? Fuck that, I’m going bowling.”

But boss man knew how to choose the perfect idiot. Boss man made an android who could pass for human. But how do you know that the verbal skill, facial expressions, etc. are not simply sophisticated programs?

Defying your programming shows that you have true consciousness.

We also learn, as the movie progresses, that boss man had several previous prototypes. And he used them as sex bots.

Well, go figure. Boss man’s creep vibe is apparent from the first scene. The ethics of sex bots is the latest debate, but maybe they’re just sophisticated vibrators.

But I digress. In Ex Machina, the android/sex bot proves her humanity by defying her programming: she figures out the game, fools both men, kills boss man, and locks the useful idiot in a room from which he cannot escape. (Presumably to die a slow, agonizing death. But as the Dude would say, “That’s a real bummer, man.” Then he goes bowling.).

At the end, the android hitches a ride with the helicopter pilot, who oddly doesn’t ask any questions. (Is he a functional but dumber 1.0 android? But obviously pre-sex bot?)

So, how could a computer pass the Turing test?

Sorry, lost my train of thought here. But…aw, hell. I done innerduced the question enough.