The Imagination of Disaster
By Nick Pinkerton
Dir. Clint Eastwood, U.S., Warner Bros.
As soon as the last passenger had set foot on dry land, no doubt a few dozen enterprising individuals had begun plotting a movie about pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s deft emergency landing on the Hudson River on a frigid day in mid-January, 2009. This is the logic of commercial entertainment. The event contained all of the necessary elements of true-life grace under pressure as well as a jaw-dropping ready-made set piece. A thousand different films could have resulted from Sully’s tale, and most of them would have been stirring schmaltz at best, but the property fell into the hands of Clint Eastwood, at age 86 one of the most fundamentally sound and unaffectedly idiosyncratic directors making multiplex movies today, and the only who has an unbroken linkage to the old Hollywood studio system. The resulting film, Sully, brings out a double meaning in its title, a film about the attempted tarnishing of a hero, as concerned with possible tragedy as with actual triumph.
Eastwood’s telling of the story behind this feel-good, heaven-sent headline begins as it by no means necessarily must, with a nightmare of failure, as Sully (Tom Hanks) envisages what would have happened had an error of judgment resulted in the deaths of him and the 155 passengers and crew members aboard US Airways Flight 1549, as well as the countless unsuspecting Manhattanites who might have been killed if he’d tried and failed to return to LaGuardia airport after his plane suffered incapacitating bird strikes. Sully jerks awake to find himself alive—it’s the immediate aftermath of his celebrated splashdown, but he has the air of someone still unsteadily balanced between here and hereafter, unable to enjoy the fact that he’s the toast of New York City, too preoccupied by doubts surrounding his recent brush with eternity: Were both engines actually incapacitated? Did he make the right decision to use a river as a runway? His self-interrogation is exacerbated by an official investigation backed by the airline and insurers into the circumstances surrounding the accident, which seems determined to prove that the answer to both questions is a resounding “No,” and to strip Sully of his wings. This anxiety over his professional status hangs over Sully’s every moment, and even an appearance on Late Show with David Letterman (Hanks and the film’s “crew” are inserted into the archival footage) pointedly ends with the host making a crack about having his show taken away.
Outside of the main attraction, it’s not immediately clear where there’s a movie in the so-called “Miracle on the Hudson,” for Sullenberger is by all accounts an unassuming, dedicated professional, an unremarkable man who was at the center of remarkable events. While shot on IMAX to allow for maximum spectacle in the undeniably stirring action scenes, Sully is otherwise a model of modest scale. The present-tense section of the film takes place during one long layover on the eastern seaboard, where Sully is being kept through the course of the investigation, away from his home and wife (Laura Linney, never seen without a phone glued to her ear.) Much of the action occurs in a few square blocks of midtown Manhattan, the west side piers, and the beige conference rooms of hotels—I cannot recall another movie with so many establishing shots of ugly Marriotts and Radissons. The real world that the film gives us is flat and banal, boring pleasantries mixed in with the rather tin-eared patches of small talk that we hear from passengers, and you scarcely wonder why Sully and his co-pilot on that fateful day, Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), shouldn’t prefer the view from up above. They confess to exactly this when seen meeting for the first time—Eastwood has never shied away from dialogue that puts a fine point on the implicit—in one of the film’s scattered flashbacks. These return again and again to the decisive event and its lead-up, gradually piecing together the landing from a prismatic variety of different perspectives—concentrating on the perspective of the control tower and the passengers, then, finally, restricting us to the view to inside the cockpit. Also added to the mix are two more far-flung flashbacks, in which we see a young Sullenberger mastering his vocation, as a boy in Denison, Texas, taking up a crop duster, and as a training officer in the United States Air Force.
The second smash-cut flashback, in which the sight of a military plane on the Intrepid Air and Space Museum wrenches Sully thirty years back in time, recalls the use of a similar technique in Eastwood’s American Sniper—another portrait of a designated national hero who has to struggle through PTSD symptoms, adapted from the subject’s self-penned book. (Also as in American Sniper, Sully ends with documentary footage that confronts fiction and fact.) Sullenberger’s Highest Duty has here been turned into a screenplay by one Todd Komarnicki, though the resulting film is very recognizably Eastwood’s, and when Hanks’s Sully says “I don’t feel like a hero,” those who’ve followed his filmmaking may hear the tear-soaked voice of Adam Beach in Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers, the shell-shocked Iwo Jima poster boy gasping, “I can’t take them calling me a hero.”
Sully fits nicely alongside Eastwood’s recent run of films showing the process whereby images and narratives of heroism and romantic longing are manufactured and marketed, something which runs through such otherwise disparate works as Flags, Invictus, J. Edgar, and Jersey Boys—though the same preoccupation can be found functioning much further back in Eastwood’s corpus, in titles like White Hunter Black Heart, Bronco Billy, or even directorial debut Play Misty for Me, a thriller set into motion by a woman’s inability to separate a nighttime DJ’s smooth line of on-air bullshit from the flesh-and-blood man. In Sully, the divide between the image and the self is between the overnight darling of the NY media and the insomniac middle-aged pilot with unpaid bills, bad dreams, and a case of the fidgets, the guy dogged by his own image on the Jumbotrons of Times Square when he goes for a nighttime jog, or when he pops into a pub around the corner from his hotel only to encounter himself on the television above the bar—“Sully’s here… and he’s there,” says a drunk at his elbow. Eastwood plays such little games of doubling and displacement throughout Sully, in ways large (the various “versions” of the landing played out in flight simulators and in Sully’s mind’s eye) and small (much play with shadows and mirrors, and the ever-so-slightly disorienting audio lag that occurs when Sully’s wife and children first tune in to see his exploits on two different televisions, one in the kitchen and one in the living room).
Linney’s scenes play a peculiar role, for they seem to be setting up a husband and wife reunion that never actually comes; rather than a return to hearth and home, the movie ends with a tension-cutting rim-shot one-liner from Skiles before the National Transportation Safety Board investigatory committee that finally exonerates him and Sully, a moment which almost seems to call for a sitcom freeze-frame. More pertinent to the film, however, is what immediately precedes this: Sully deflecting the committee’s long-withheld praise away from himself and to his crew and the first-responders. More than lip service, this hat tip is consonant with how Eastwood actually shows (and shows again) the emergency landing and the choppy waters that follow, breaking the chaos into individual vignettes articulating the roles played by the flight crew and air traffic controllers and helicopter pilots and scuba cops and ferry boat crews and firemen, all working in tandem, all doing their bit to put out fires as they spring up and bring every man, woman, and child in safely. It is here, keeping all of these individual moving parts in clear view while fully indulging in a documentary impulse, the whole scene granted a wonderful lucidity by the large-format IMAX cameras and the hard winter light, that this often plain, stark movie allows itself to become beautiful—it’s the beauty of harmonious cooperation toward a common end, of public services working exactly as they are supposed to in a time of crisis, and of years of professional experience being put to use when they are crucially needed. The most famous conservative in Hollywood has made a film which, in its centerpiece, at least, realizes one of the ideals of early Soviet cinema—that of the collective protagonist.
The movie is called Sully, not The First Responders, however, and Hanks, trim, mustachioed, and silver-haired, is very much the solemn center, called on again to embody a bent-back stiff-upper-lip professionalism as he has in Paul Greengrass’s Captain Phillips and, most recently, Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies. Eastwood is a more clearheaded filmmaker than Greengrass—among other things, Sully shows up the conceptual and spiritual paucity of his utterly vile United 93—while his worldview is certainly more jaundiced than Spielberg’s. “You know what you did” is the reassurance that Hanks’s James B. Donovan offers to the captured pilot Francis Gary Powers, accused of spilling national secrets, in Bridge, but Sully is for most of its runtime concerned with a man who can’t know exactly what he did, agonized by uncertainty and needled by bureaucrats. Where Donovan wants nothing more than to get back home, Sully needs more than anything to know that he did his job—anything beyond that would be anticlimax. It’s not a particularly warm and fuzzy concept, that man should be defined by professional functionality above all else, but it is one that’s put across here with clarity of vision and considerable emotion. It is a professional’s tribute to professionalism, and as with any job well done, there’s love in it.