Clint Eastwood’s most recent films—Jersey Boys and American Sniper—are history lessons gone rogue. Neither plays by traditional biopic rules in presenting the past as non-linear, fragmented bursts of subjectivity that tell us less about what happened and more about why. Their “real-life” subjects are contradictory icons engulfed by celebrity and doomed by selfish decisions, left to linger on as enigmas when the credits role.
The same level of emotional ambiguity and rigor cannot be found in Sully, which is a far more earnest and symbolic depiction of unforeseen heroism.
Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, a career pilot with more than 40 years of experience in the air, successfully landed a jetliner on the Hudson River after both engines failed due to bird impact on January 15, 2009. Even though no major casualties occurred, Eastwood sees the mere possibility of aviation disaster as a way to grapple with the visual ghosts of 9/11, and in turn champion the collective gut instinct of everyday Americans.
Tom Hanks imbues the mustachioed pilot with a traumatized humility. We meet Sully post-crash after he wakes up from a disturbing crash nightmare where he and the 155 souls on board meet a more tragic fate in downtown Manhattan. A crippling sense of self-doubt is already starting to creep in even before his first scheduled meeting with suspicious NTSB officials, who have a bone to pick even though Sully has been deemed a hero in the court of public opinion.
Only later do we get glimpses of Sully’s life before the “Miracle on the Hudson.” Brief aerial flashbacks reinforce Eastwood’s desire to focus on his character’s acumen under pressure, and his ability to learn from a growing collection of lessons and mistakes experienced over the years. The film’s perforated narrative directly correlates with Sully’s growing fear that he made the wrong decision despite correctly “eye-balling” his best options. Brief phone conversations with worried wife Lorraine (Laura Linney in a throwaway role) do little to quell his anxiety.
Eastwood employs experimental jumps in time and perspective to convey the visceral horror of that day. Those 208 tense seconds between liftoff and forced water landing are meticulously repeated from different vantage points. Each variation draws us farther away from the truth—which is unattainable—and closer to understanding the split-second magnitude of decisions made by Sully and co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart). All the while, government officials continue to claim that multiple simulations prove the plane could have made it back to La Guardia unharmed.
Incessant questioning by these bureaucrats stands in contrast to the universal praise heaped on Sully from random strangers on the street. Eastwood paints the feds as humorless and opportunistic while the adoring fans seem like genuine people in desperate need of good news. Through this prism Sully illuminates the complicated human element hiding behind modern lore, and the battle between instinct and indecision that resonates from traumatic chapters in history.
For all its impressive IMAX photography and booming sound design, the film concludes inside with a government hearing where Sully and Skiles are forced to defend themselves before a distrusting tribunal. The tonal shift makes sense, though, mostly as a rallying cry mirroring Sully’s own defense of the human factor in times of stress. Eastwood has a thing for old-fashioned endings and quaint exclamation marks. Wearing hokum so proudly will inevitably turn some people off.
Sully, opening Friday, Sept. 9, ends on a joke and collective laughter. This is a far cry from the mesmerizing image of isolation found early in the film of Sully shrouded in a blanket of steam. Such a transition reinforces Eastwood’s calm, brilliant dismantling of the Great Man Theory using the great man himself. History doesn’t happen in vacuum, and Sully understands that best: “We all did it. We all survived.”