The last two movies I have seen are Sully and Deepwater Horizon. Both are movies recounting recent events: one the landing of a passenger jet on the Hudson River, and the other the explosion of a BP oil well in the Gulf of Mexico.
Now to be fair, the making of movies retelling historical events is by no means a new found genre. Most movies are just that – retelling historical events in one way or another. But most of those, such as Amistad, Titanic, and Lincoln had a particular character focus, one that could be developed and nurtured.
And to be honest, that is what sets movies apart from documentaries. Movies remove us from the reality of the world and set us in a position where we can meet characters and explore their depths, both positive and negative. Whereas documentaries show us the reality of what happened, and we are left to debate the consequences.
Sully and Deepwater Horizon (and presumably the soon to be released Patriot’s Day) are not documentaries as they use actors and special effects, but neither can they truly be classified as movies either.
Consider the primary flaw in each – the absence of character development. Each movie tries to give us a human perspective of the events as opposed to what we all remember seeing in the media reports. The problem is that we are left being introduced to a good guy who is fighting the bad guys. In Sully, Captain Sullenberger was the good guy arguing his case before the FAA who were displayed so coldly and harshly, one almost wonders if they would have preferred the plane crashed and everyone died.
In Deepwater Horizon, Mike Williams is shown as a hardworking family man, who along with his boss Mr. Jimmy, are trying to do the right thing in protecting the workers and the well, whereas the executives for BP are shown as cold and heartless and reckless, whose only worry is making another billion dollars, and will cut any corner necessary to do it.
What are we left with?
Great special effects, but no real story or greater insight into the matter then one had when they walked in.
One other aspect should be mentioned that may contribute to this: knowing the end to well. I was in New York when the real life passenger jet landed on the Hudson River, and I remember watching the news daily as oil poured out of the open pipe that was Deepwater Horizon. I know the ending, and I have a fairly good recollection of how things progressed. Compared to other historical movies, where in Lincoln, I knew the history of the Civil War and of the year 1864-65, but only a cursory knowledge, not an in-depth knowledge. So watching Lincoln, I knew the ending, but the details in arriving at the ending were new to me.
What does this say about movie making? If you need to make a historical movie, pick an event nobody remembers, and spend more than 30 seconds developing characters.