Clint Eastwood’s latest “Sully,” suffers from several of the same tensions and contradictions that plagued his previous film, 2014’s “American Sniper.” To clarify, “Sniper” didn’t strike me as the jingoistic, chest-beating war porn that many took it as. Rather, it was an examination of the psychological toll that comes from being a “hero” and a curious, critical look at what the definition of a “hero” is. This has been a common theme throughout Eastwood’s directorial efforts; deconstructing and progressively redefining traditional symbols of American masculinity: cowboys in “Unforgiven” and “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” police in “Sudden Impact” and “Mystic River,” boxers in “Million Dollar Baby,” and astronauts in “Space Cowboys.” And what is more American and masculine than the soldier, the guardian of America at home and abroad? “Sniper” was the apotheosis of Eastwood’s political, thematic and philosophical tendencies, but its difficult, harrowing, and necessary deconstruction was muddled by Eastwood succumbing at the last second to a form of hagiographic hero worship, clearly desiring to buy into the false myths he’s spent he career trying to tear down.
The reaction to “American Sniper” was controversial, divisive and borderline toxic, much like contemporary politics. “Sully” appears to be a response to this controversy, or rather, a way to avoid it. “Sniper’s” Chris Kyle was in reality a much more complicated and controversial person than in the film (like every human is, or would be if they had a movie made about them), and the war in Iraq had many more nuances and complexities that the film chose to leave out, a somewhat understandable and defendable choice given the story Eastwood was actually trying to tell. The controversy surrounding the film sprang from a question of historical veracity.
There are no such questions or conflicting perspectives surrounding the Miracle on the Hudson. On January 15, 2009, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) and his co-pilot Jeffrey Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) encountered engine failure after a flock of geese crashed into their plane mere moments after departing from LaGuardia airport in New York. Utilizing all his skill and instincts as a pilot, Sullenberger determined that they were unable to return to LaGuardia or make it to the nearby Teterboro airport, and safely made a water landing on the Hudson River, saving all 155 of the passengers aboard. The rest of the film deals with the aftermath and investigation of the event.
By choosing this chapter of recent history as his subject, Eastwood has attempted to insulate himself against criticism, and thus protect the integrity of any potential hero worship he may want indulge in this time around. It’s debatable whether or not Chris Kyle was the humble but brave patriot that “Sniper” made him out to be, but who’s going to argue Sullenberger’s status as a hero? He unquestionably saved lives, and though his risky water landing was initially questionable and against protocol, it has since been determined that Sullenberger did the right thing, given the situation.
In the film, almost everyone sees this except for the National Transportation Safety Board, who are investigating the incident and are portrayed to be looking for a scapegoat to blame for the incident, making Sully their target. Once again, a puzzling contradiction emerges. Similar to “Sniper,” there is the tension between wanting to valorize Sully and make him a model and ideal to strive for (in this case, rightly so), while also wanting to show the costs of actually being that ideal, as evidenced by the post-traumatic nightmares Sully experiences.
But there’s yet another conflict that’s specific to this film. “Sully” is a film about professionalism, about decent people who do their jobs well and save lives. Sully, after listening to the Black Box recording of what transpired in the cockpit, expresses to Skiles how proud he is of both of them and how “We did our jobs.” During one of the flashbacks to the crash, a large chunk of time is spent depicting the rescue workers who come to the passengers aid and bring them safely to shore, Eastwood cinematically and narratively echoing Sully’s pride in people who “do their jobs.” Sully verbally echoes this one last time at the NTSB hearing, commending the heroism displayed not by him, but by everyone else – the rescue workers, the flight attendants and the passengers themselves.
But if Eastwood wishes to sentimentally demonstrate the importance of professionalism and dedication to ones duty, why then does he then demonize the NTSB officials who investigate Sully? Are they not also “doing their jobs?” Again, a prime example of the director wanting to have his cake and eat it too. And it’s only after overwhelming, irrefutable evidence, and only in the face of Sully’s overwhelming decency, intelligence and, yes, professionalism, that the investigators agree that Sully was correct in his decision to land on the Hudson.
Ultimately, Eastwood wants to indulge in the hero worship and give in to his more conservative tendencies. He wants America to be able to have uncritical, uncomplicated respect for its heroes. But to have a hero, one needs a villain. That’s why, while not overt, this is a political film like the rest of Eastwood’s filmography, divisive ideologies, borderline propagandist tendencies, warts and all. This explains the interesting tonal shifts that were present in this film and in “Sniper.” In both, most of the movie has a grim, un-emotional feel. They’re certainly thrilling (Eastwood directs the hell out of the various plane crash scenes) but mostly, they have a more detached, noir-ish coldness. This is reflected in Tom Stern’s cinematography: mostly solid, simple framing, and washed out colors that give the film a gray-ish hue, a visual murkiness. This style was more appropriate for his earlier films, with their moral grayness and political complexities, but it feels out of place here, when the filmmaker’s goal is to show us an uncomplicated portrait of a heroic man saving people out of a sense of duty and moral righteousness. The coldness of the visuals don’t match the warmth of feeling the film eventually ends up projecting. Eastwood’s is a cinema of conflicts and dichotomies.
In many ways, the less complicated subject matter makes “Sully” easier to enjoy than Eastwood’s other films, or at least “American Sniper.” But it also makes the film much less interesting. His films are political and philosophical Rorschach Tests, which may be part of the reason so many film lovers enjoy and respect his work. But “Sully” is his most simplistic. I can’t see anyone walking out of this film with wildly conflicting opinions on the kind of man Sullenberger was or the situation he found himself in. Eastwood has made a more palatable, easier film, but in doing so, he’s sacrificed making a truly powerful one.