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How to Make It As an American Hero

According to Clint Eastwood’s conflicted — but very effective — ‘Sully’

Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

It begins with a nightmare. A mere two minutes after taking off from LaGuardia Airport, a plane carrying 150 passengers and five crew members gets clipped by a flock of Canada geese, loses thrust in both engines, and begins to fall from the sky at 3,200 feet. You’re the pilot, Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger. You have options. Maneuver the plane back to LaGuardia, per procedure, for an emergency landing. Glide some seven miles away, if that won’t work, to nearby Teterboro Airport, a relief facility in New Jersey. Try to nudge the plane a bit farther, despite physics, to attempt an even more unlikely landing at Newark.

Or do what the guy in the nightmare does: Sail toward New York City — toward your death. You’ll try to navigate skyscrapers like they’re the tight mountain passes air aces in old movies whipped through to prove their muster. It’ll be a worthy effort. But you’ll have nowhere to land. And you’ll careen into the New York City skyline like a catastrophic reminder of recent history.

That’s not the outcome we remember. It’s not what happened on the afternoon of January 15, 2009, when the real Capt. Sullenberger and his copilot, Jeffrey Skiles, forewent attempts to land at LaGuardia or Teterboro and instead maneuvered US Airways Flight 1549 into the icy Hudson River for an unprecedented water landing. All 155 people on the plane survived: There was no fiery blaze. And yet the nightmare alternative is what the Capt. Sullenberger of Clint Eastwood’s new movie, Sully, relives every night in his dreams and every day in his daymares. It’s as if the mere sight of the city’s skyline is all it takes to trigger a devastating vision of its destruction.

That vision is a key to the man. Played by a white-haired Tom Hanks, whose face is specked with liver spots and the relaxed wariness of experience, Sully is a man in crisis. The crisis isn’t the Miracle on the Hudson, fraught as that event is. And we would know: We experience it multiple times in the movie, from every possible perspective — passengers, pilots, air traffic controllers, helpless onlookers across the city — with the rigorous precision and subtle attention to detail and mood Eastwood’s direction has long been known for.

Ultimately, though, the Miracle on the Hudson is the start of a broader and more bitter conversation. The real crisis, what dredges up all the movie’s existential muck, is everything that comes after. It’s the “human performance investigation” mounted by the National Transportation Safety Board, whose computers have mapped out 20 alternatives to Sully and Skiles’s water landing, casting doubt on whether that extraordinary maneuver was right or even necessary. It’s homesickness, too: the prolonged stay in New York, enforced by the NTSB investigation, that strips Sully of any tangible sense of familial or private life. (He stays tethered to his wife, Lorraine, played by Laura Linney, by telephone.) It’s the nightmares too, of course, and what they suggest of Sully’s state of mind as they break the movie up and push it every which way, backward and forward, outward from New York to the places and experiences of Sully’s past.

That’s more than enough material for one man’s psyche to reckon with, and it’s certainly more than enough to occupy a satisfying 96-minute-long movie full of flashbacks and exhilarating plane sequences. But again: This is a Clint Eastwood movie. And the crisis at the very core of the movie is the one at the core of Eastwood’s career as both an actor and a director: celebrity. Specifically, heroic celebrity. Like Eastwood’s previous film, the politically controversial hit American Sniper, Sully invents its own cinematic language for post-traumatic stress, albeit under different conditions. But as was also the case in Sniper, heroism, as an idea, is rife with psychic costs. In the Eastwood universe, heroic celebrity is its own stress disorder.

Sully is in large part a film about the gap between who Sully is, as a thinking, feeling person — as an individual relying on his instincts and experience to break the rules of procedure in order to save 155 lives — and who, because of that act, he becomes. He’s immediately morphed into a symbol: of decency and selflessness, to some, and of reckless bravery, to others. The particulars of who he is get flattened into myth.

The Sully of public affection is lit up by the lights of cameras and the unambiguous regard of others. But alone in his hotel room, shot in profile, his face is constantly awash in richly uncertain shadow. There’s a rift at work. Women he doesn’t know hug him spontaneously. He walks into a bar and they’re already selling a drink named for him: “The Sully.” (Grey Goose with a splash of water; get it?) The NTSB, meanwhile, steadily erodes his confidence in the choice to land the plane in the Hudson River. There’s hero worship, on the one hand, and there’s whatever you’d call having your motivation for saving a plane full of people questioned by a set of computer algorithms. Neither sees you specifically. Which is worse?

That depends on Sully. Does the fame simply overwhelm him because he’s an old-fashioned hero? Note the thick mustache, the humility, the military record, and — most of all — the fact that he’s played by Tom Hanks, who is characteristically quietly intelligent and nuanced, but also Cinderella-slipper perfect for a role full of moral reserve. It’s true that the Sully of real life matches this description; he belongs to the moment of the hero-pilot: the era of Chuck Yeager. This also means, as New York magazine’s Bob Kolker noted not long after the incident, he’s of an era when pilots relied less on fixed procedure than on instinct. “Pilots like Sully who can perform in such circumstances are a dying breed,” writes Kolker.

It’s easy to see why Eastwood, who’s 86 years old and 38 films into his directing career, might find the value in this. It’s certainly made it easy to write his movies off as old man stuff (decrying millennials for being a politically correct “pussy generation,” as he did in Esquire last month, doesn’t help — not that he cares). It’s also true that for a film as wary of the costs of heroism as this one, the movie is strangely invested in bolstering this particular hero, swaddling him in what might appear, at a glance, to be the bright, myth-making illusions of Old Hollywood.

Is that tension between the movie’s cynical regard for myth and its adulation for heroism a flaw? That dynamic made it hard to love American Sniper, a movie that, for its many virtues as a piece of filmmaking (all of which Sully shares), fell prey to precisely the convenient non-specificity Eastwood otherwise has no time for. That makes Sully an ideal alternative for some of us. For others, it’ll simply be more of the same, another white knight getting the Hollywood treatment, coasting along on his unimpeachable nobility — an error, I think, as the truth of Eastwood’s movies is in the shadow, not the light.