Clint Eastwood’s Sully is the director’s latest film about real life heroism. Starting with Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima in 2006, Eastwood has made several films based on inspirational true stories, though often from an odd angle (telling Nelson Mandela’s story as a function of the rugby World Cup, for example). With Sully, however, Eastwood – ever the deconstructionist – has decided to approach what could be a straightforward story and treat it as an opportunity to meditate on the very nature of heroism itself.
The story is already very well-known. On a cold January day in 2009, a commercial plane flying out of New York hit a flock of geese and the pilot, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (played here by Tom Hanks), was forced to land the plane on the Hudson River. It was a terrifying ordeal, but, in the end, the crew and passengers survived. It was deemed “The Miracle on the Hudson”.
The film begins after the event has already taken place, with Sully being hailed as a hero. However, in the midst of the various TV interviews and network puff pieces, the accident is being investigated, and Sully’s judgment called into question. Was the water landing totally necessary, or could he have conceivably made it back to an airport?
While Sully believes he did the right thing, that’s a far cry from being able to comfortably wear the title of “Hero”. In the midst of the media circus and the government investigation, Sully is still dealing with his own nightmare scenarios; that they didn’t actually happen doesn’t make them any less impactful. And so Sully slowly finds himself more and more isolated, as the larger narrative begins to take over. But Eastwood isn’t interested in the “Lone Hero” narrative that so many characters in the film are willing to settle for. He wants to go deeper.
Much about Sully echoes the 2013 Paul Greengrass film Captain Phillips. The real life heroism, the presence of Hanks, and even the title itself; everything about the film points to a well-made – but ultimately predictable – tale of inspiration and triumph. However, as the film unfolded, I was put in mind of a different Tom Hanks film: Apollo 13. And while the differences may be slight, they are certainly worth noting. For, in the differences, we see what Eastwood is attempting to communicate about heroism and self-sacrifice.
While everybody in the film is praising Sully, we see glimpses of the air traffic controller that helped him understand his options in the midst of the crisis. We see the Coast Guard rush to the scene of the crash to help pull the passengers out of the freezing water. We see the flight attendants who jump into action the moment things start to go wrong. Sully’s co-pilot (Aaron Eckhart), who was in the same cockpit and felt many of the same moments of panic, but dutifully went about doing his job. The list goes on.
Eventually, Sully himself acknowledges that it wasn’t just him that saved those passengers. As in Apollo 13, we see that, behind every act of heroism is the diligent work of dozens – if not hundreds – of people putting aside their own needs to help their fellow man. Eastwood wisely makes a number of connections to September 11th, the ghost of which looms large over the film. As New York businessmen see the plane flying abnormally low, looks of horror – and, sadly, recognition – spread across their faces. After the crash, a man sheepishly mentions New York’s last airplane “incident”. Once the passengers are saved and the story gets out, the city’s reaction is so joyous it’s almost cathartic, as though its citizens have been holding their collective breath for eight years, desperately wishing something could come along to restore their hope again.
This is a fascinating angle from which to approach this material, and all of the creative elements of the film – from the story structure to the acting to the editing – take their cues from Eastwood’s careful reassessment of the event, with Tom Hanks’ subtle work leading the way. Hanks has been turning in a number of great performances recently – with his unflinching turn in Captain Phillips being a particular standout – and his choices here are no different. He plays Sully as an enigmatic man whose awareness of just how wrong things could have gone occupies as much of his mind as how things actually went. It is a combination of humility and guilt, keeping Sully, a man that we so desperately want to relate to, at arm’s length. This portrayal of Sully, both in the writing and the performance, is yet another example of Eastwood’s deconstruction of real world heroism. While everybody in the film is trying to reduce Sully to a few basic, easily-comprehended ideas, Hanks and Eastwood attempt to portray him as just another person with his own complex strengths and weaknesses, who happened to rise to the occasion at the right moment.
Sully takes a seemingly simple story of heroism and defies the audience to feel inspired by it. At every turn, we are reminded of how things could have just as easily gone wrong as right, and that it was more than just the work of a single person that kept that from happening. As Eastwood has systematically tried to deconstruct his own career over the last 25 years – undercutting his own image of lone heroism in films like Unforgiven and Gran Torino – he has refused to accept simple narratives at face value. He has shown himself to be a surprisingly sensitive filmmaker, more interested in digging deep into his subjects’ complex and flawed humanity to find the root of inspiration and hope. With Sully, Eastwood challenges us to avoid putting extraordinary men like Sullenberger on too high of a pedestal, lest we ignore the more mundane heroism that we see all around us, and that we ourselves might even be a part of.