“Sully,” Clint Eastwood’s latest film, suffers from several of the same tensions and contradictions that plagued 2014’s “American Sniper.” The latter 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 somewhat 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’s 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, falling victim to the false myths he’s spent his career trying to tear down.
The reaction to “American Sniper” was divisive and at times toxic, much like this year’s 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, and the war in Iraq had many nuances and complexities that the film chose to leave out. This is a somewhat understandable and defendable choice, given the story Eastwood was trying to tell. But that’s where the controversy surrounding the film sprang from, a question of historical veracity.
There are fewer questions and conflicting perspectives surrounding what has come to be known as the Miracle on the Hudson. On Jan. 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. Sullenberger determined that they were unable to return to LaGuardia or make it to nearby Teterboro Airport and decided to make 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, which is investigating the incident and is portrayed as looking for a scapegoat to blame for the incident, with Sully its target. Once again, a puzzling contradiction emerges in a Clint Eastwood film. Similar to “Sniper,” there is the tension between wanting to valorize Sully, to make him a model and ideal to strive for, 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 reinforces 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 hopes to sentimentally demonstrate the importance of professionalism and dedication to one’s duty, why then does he demonize the NTSB officials who investigate Sully? Are they not also doing their jobs? It’s a prime example of the director wanting to have his cake and eat it too. And it’s only after overwhelming, irrefutable evidence and in the face of Sully’s overwhelming decency, intelligence and 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 overtly, this is a political film just like the rest of Eastwood’s filmography, divisive ideologies, borderline propagandist tendencies, warts and all.
This explains the interesting tonal shifts 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 plane crash scenes in “Sully”), but mostly have a more objective, 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 and a visual murkiness. This style was more appropriate for his earlier films, with their moral grayness and political complexities. 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 the chance to make a truly powerful one.