Clint Eastwood (2016)
Ernest Hemingway famously defined courage as “grace under pressure,” and Captain Chesley Sullenberger, protagonist of Clint Eastwood’s new film Sully, is the exemplum of that definition. Eastwood, like Hemingway himself, has spent a career examining the notion of the hero, and just as Hemingway could be either memorably successful (as in For Whom the Bell Tolls) or not so much (as in To Have and Have Not) in his explorations of heroism in twentieth-century life, so Eastwood can also be very successful in depicting flawed or conflicted characters capable of heroism (as he does in Unforgiven, Million-Dollar Baby, or Letters from Iwo Jima), or can miss the mark, as I would argue occurred in last year’s American Sniper, in which the protagonist’s post-traumatic stress is swept under the rug in the film’s last minutes.
That kind of sidestepping the issue never occurs in Sully, for Captain Sullenberger needs no whitewashing. He’s already so squeaky clean that it’s hard to read him as anything but a simple, everyman-type hero in the old-fashioned sense, whose job was to fly a plane, and who knew enough after 40 years of experience to be able to do his job well when the moment came for a very unusual decision, but who in doing that job managed to save the lives of 155 people.
Sully’s story is actually fairly well known, and so recent that nearly everyone recalls the details of the event—so not a lot of surprises here. To recap the story as the film tells it, on January 15, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549, piloted by Captain Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), encountered a flock of geese immediately after takeoff from LaGuardia, knocking out both of its engines. The veteran pilot Sully determines—by “eyeballing it” as he says later—that the plane will never be able to stay up long enough to make a safe return to a runway at Laguardia or an alternate airport in New Jersey, and opts instead to make a water landing in the Hudson River. All 155 passengers and crew are ultimately rescued, and Sully’s gutsy maneuver makes headlines around the world as the “Miracle on the Hudson.”
That is really just the beginning of the film’s story. In an unlooked-for twist, federal officials immediately begin to question Sully’s decision to land on the Hudson, and he and Skiles are quickly called in for questioning. In “real life,” the inquiry actually occurred some eighteen months after the incident, and so is far less vividly remembered. But Sully faces accusations calling his judgment into question and at the film’s climax, up against computer and manual simulations that provide evidence against him., Sully is in danger (after 40 years of flying) of losing his job and his pension. Thus we have no flawed protagonist choosing the heroic option here, but rather the innocent everyman threatened by the cold bureaucracy of the System.
Thus Sully is less like one of Hemingway’s heroes, or even one of Eastwood’s more typical protagonists, than he is like one of Frank Capra’s honest Everymen against the corrupt forces trying to exploit or pervert those common-sense American virtues. In that way this is a very old-fashioned film, and Sully’s ultimate hearing before the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recalls nothing so much as Longfellow Deeds’ sanity hearing, in which he demonstrates to his accusers that he is probably the sanest man in the room, or Jefferson Smith’s desperate one-man filibuster during which he makes clear that he is the most honest man in the Senate that intends to censure him.
And yet the film has a contemporary feel as well, particularly in its narrative structure, since rather than tell its story in strict chronological sequence, it returns again and again to the 208 seconds between the moment Sully’s plane was damaged to the time he landed it in the Hudson River. The film opens with a nightmare in which Sully relives the crisis but fails to save the plane as it crashes, 9/11-like, into the New York skyline. We see the scenario, as well, in real time in the cockpit, but then again later as it plays out with the flight crew and the passengers, and once again as it unfolds in the air-traffic-control tower. In such scenes Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki, who adapted Captain Sullenberger’s own account of the events in his book Highest Duty, are able to take a story we already know the end of and insert some suspense into it. We are actually put into the plane with the passengers who are told to “brace for impact.” We are put into the air-traffic-control tower with the controller trying to find a place for Flight 1549 to land, who loses contact with the cockpit and with a shock believes the plane has crashed. We are made to experience what it was like to have come within a hair’s breadth of disaster, and the ebullience of landing safely.
Sure, Sully feels a bit of post-traumatic stress, and understandably some self-doubt as his hearing looms. Hanks, as always, delivers a spot-on performance as the everyman hero—our contemporary equivalent of a James Stewart or a Gary Cooper—who quietly and competently goes about his work and can be relied upon to do his job expertly when called upon. Eckhart, whose Skiles is a bit more fun-loving, a bit more brash, a bit more apt to joke around, is the perfect foil to the straight-as-an-arrow, ultra-professional Sully. Laura Linney, who plays Sully’s exasperated wife, stuck at home in the eye of a media-storm and worried about the bills, is given almost nothing to do. She does it well, but her story seems beside the point, almost a distraction from what we’re interested in seeing. Perhaps that is the film’s greatest flaw. Some viewers might also find Sully’s character a bit dull—he is certainly not Denzel Washington’s character in 2012’s Flight, very loosely inspired by Sully’s story, in which Washington’s pilot, hero for a brief time, is revealed to be an alcoholic and drug abuser who put his passengers at risk. Washington’s complexly flawed character is more interesting, but Hanks’ Sully is more inspiring because of his true-to-life rectitude, and probably more difficult to play because he is so much less extreme.
In the end, this is a story about everyday heroism—not only Sully’s but his crewmembers’, his passengers’, and the unheralded rescue workers’ in New York whose quick response ensured that the 155 survivors of the crash did not freeze to death in the middle of the icy Hudson in January. But it is also a throwback celebration of human ingenuity, intelligence, and especially judgment in the face of computerized simulations and evidence which, it turns out, cannot match the finer distinctions that 40 years of human experience can make. That, too, is product of everyday heroism. Sully is, in the end, not a great movie, but it is one of those rare films where you may hear an audience spontaneously applaud in the end. That’s certainly worth a rating of three Tennysons in my book.