If only Whip Whitaker, Denzel Washington’s sozzled pilot from Robert Zemeckis’s Flight, would’ve had the temerity to call a halt to the NTSB hearings into the crash of his Atlanta-bound plane with an impassioned reminder that he saved all but six lives after total midflight failure. How inspiring it would’ve been for him to first admit to his alcoholism, but then decimate the entire proceedings with a snarl: “That’s the kiss-ass generation we’re in right now. We’re really in a pussy generation. Everybody’s walking on eggshells.” Rather, those are the words that were pull-quoted ad nauseam from Clint Eastwood’s recent Esquire interview. Eastwood’s new film could scarcely be more of a total inversion of the earlier Zemeckis pilot-on-trial melodrama, which posited that acts of heroism exist in isolation from the complexity of the human condition. With Sully, Eastwood presses the case that it’s that very complexity that distracts us from the pure dignity of a noble act.
Eastwood modulates his way into this conclusion by fracturing his depiction of the “Miracle on the Hudson” into oblique flashbacks, none of them entirely declarative. These fragments pepper the immediate aftermath of U.S. Airways Flight 1549’s emergency descent alongside Manhattan after striking a flock of geese. Not one life was lost in the crash. Thus, so far as the world knows, Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) represents the second coming. The event preceded the inauguration of Barack Obama by only a few days, and for a brief moment amid our massive economic downturn, Sully’s actions seemed to suggest that there needn’t be any audacity surrounding hope.
And yet, out come the investigative bureaucrats and insurance adjusters, all hell-bent on placing asterisks next to Sully’s decision to make a forced water landing—consigning the plane itself to the salvage heap—rather than attempt to turn back around and land the plane at LaGuardia. Hanks’s Sully is either too decent a man to be incredibly upset about the committee’s insinuations that he put his entire manifest of 155 souls unnecessarily in danger’s way or too caught up in the PTSD of the experience to contradict their claims. Eastwood doesn’t ask Hanks to telegraph his emotions; he doesn’t particularly indicate that they’d be relevant in the first place. Those would just complicate the simplicity of his good deed, in the same manner that the NTSB investigations questioning Sully’s instincts pollute his accomplishments.
In Eastwood’s America, we all have a habit of making everything much too complicated, and the director’s skepticism comes to a head as Sully and his co-pilot, Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), are forced to answer to a series of simulations purporting to show that, indeed, the plane needn’t have splash-landed. (And speaking of things that Eastwood believes shouldn’t be so complicated, one of the film’s most glaring flaws is in how little it gives Laura Linney, playing Sully’s wife, to do—namely, stress out in her living room with a phone in her hand. Between this and Captain Phillips, which utterly wasted Catherine Keener, it doesn’t pay to play Hanks’s wife in a docudrama.)
All that said, at no point does Eastwood apply the heavy hand that characterized some of his other late-period prestige efforts (most notably Mystic River and Flags of Our Fathers). Maybe it’s the amount of reverence he has for his subject, and just maybe it’s a testament to Hanks’s continuing dignity as a performer, but somehow even framing the entire film around the simultaneous persecution and deification of a true everyman caught in an extraordinary circumstance doesn’t result in cantankerousness. For one refreshing moment we have an Eastwood film that very nearly strikes the same unsophisticated but delicate tone of his obligatory end-credits ditty.