Movie Notes: 'Sully'

Last night I saw Sully, the Clint Eastwood-directed hymn of praise for airline pilot Chesley Sullenberger, who pulled off the daring emergency landing of US Air Flight 1549 on the Hudson River in 2009, when a collision with a flock of birds took out both of the plane’s engines minutes after takeoff from Laguardia – and became an overnight media sensation.  

My colleague Richard Alleva will have a full review in the magazine, so just two thoughts from me here. First, I doubt I’ll ever tire of watching Tom Hanks, who plays Sully. There’s something about Hanks that is especially familiar and comforting. Wouldn’t you want him piloting your plane? There’s a particular expression he has recurred to throughout his career, a quizzical frown that tilts equally toward gravity or comedy, conveying either self-doubt or a private inner joke. Either way, it makes him both interesting – by giving him an interior – and sympathetic, by implying a habitual self-scrutiny.  Hanks’ default humility and humanity make him the ideal actor to play an honorable American saddled with burdens of grave responsibility, as he did in Charlie Wilson’s War, Captain Phillips, and Bridge of Spies.  Such roles mine a vein of mythic nostalgia for men as they used to be, when decency, steadiness and quiet sacrifice were the standard male equipment, and family fathers were ready to pay the price for their responsibilities. And Hanks is right there in that sweet spot with the current film.

It’s right up Eastwood’s alley as well. I’m ambivalent about Eastwood as a director. He’s best when he’s working a darker vein of material, and violence, revenge or resolute abrasiveness lie at the core of his characters. These qualities imbue his best films, from High Plains Drifter and Unforgiven to Mystic River and Gran Torino. What I resist in him is a streak of sentimentality, triggered especially by patriotism and drawing forth odes to manly honor, duty, and country-love. In American Sniper, he romanticized the warrior-soldier via an operatic American pageantry of flags, flowers, funerals, and football. As I wrote in my review, this solemn pageantry is part of who we have become in the post 9-11 era, with military service and the emergency rescue professions held high as sacred endeavors. I’ve written elsewhere to confess that I’m wary of the power of this patriotism, with its mustering of collective emotion; history has shown how useful it can be in fueling the machinery of war and stifling conscience and dissent. More specifically I’m wary of what historian Chris Appy has called the “restoration project” of the political right in the U.S. over the last three decades, whose goal has been “to rebuild everything they thought the [Vietnam] war had destroyed – American power, pride, prestige and patriotism.”

I saw Sniper as another tool in this restoration, and the same effort is on display in Sully. Depicting Sullenberger’s heroism, Eastwood feints at engaging the issue critically, just as he did in Sniper, by paying attention to the mechanics of media mythmaking – the way Sullenberger instantly gets packaged and hawked as an American hero -- and its all-but-obliterating effect on the real man. But again Eastwood lets respect erode this perspective, until what remains is not a critique of hero-worship, but just hero worship. Then there’s the film’s tribute to first responders, an explicit nod to 9/11. I’m by no means immune to sympathetic portrayals of the New York City cops, ferry pilots, police divers and others who eagerly assisted in the Hudson River rescue. Their stressful work is the kind that often leads to PTSD, and they’re underpaid to boot. But admiration and gratitude for individual acts of sacrifice is one thing, and the mobilization of collective emotion, via flag-and-warrior worship, paeans to American exceptionalism, and explicit references to the attack our enemies made on us in 2001 is something else.

This may all strike you as going pretty far afield from the story of a skilled pilot deftly landing his plane in an emergency. And that’s my point. An obvious question going into this movie was, What will Eastwood make of an incident that lasted only four minutes, and whose outcome we already know? The answer, in part, is “another vehicle for worshiping courageous American father-figures and first responders.” Be sure to stay through the credits at the end of the movie, when tacked-on footage records actual passengers from the flight gravely reciting their seat numbers – 11B, 92A, and so on.  Why? What is it about seat numbers in an airplane mishap that deserves this solemn, ritual roll call?

“When they were reading off their seat numbers, I got a little choked up,” one viewer posted on a review site I chanced across. And that’s the problem I have with Sully. If sentimentality in art is the attempt to invest more emotion in events than they deserve – what James Baldwin called “the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion” -- then this is the essence of it. Via such gambits as the seat roll call, Eastwood wants to take us to a place of reverence, and I find myself crankily unwilling to go there.

One last complaint. Sully saddles the terrific actress Laura Linney with one of the most thankless roles I’ve seen in years. Playing Sullenberger’s wife, following events back at home in Chicago, she’s restricted to a handful of phone calls in which she reiterates her desperate concern for her husband and begs him to come home. The real desperation arises from the sad gender disparity in the fates of middle-aged actors: the guy gets the glory, the woman hears about it on the phone. And that’s not a problem merely with Eastwood, but with Hollywood.

 

PS. The director and screenwriter Curtis Hanson has died, after a long slide into Alzheimer’s. Though Hanson was best known for his stylish 1997 noir revival, L.A. Confidential, his efforts include such widely varied films as The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, The River Wild, and Mile 8. But the Hanson movies I’d urge you to Netflix are two that won less love than they deserved when they came out. One is Wonder Boys, a warm, forgiving and intermittently hilarious comedy, with Michael Douglas as a broken-down novelist-professor experiencing one rueful disaster after another. The other is a 1978 crime thriller, The Silent Partner, with Elliott Gould as a seemingly nerdy bank teller and Christopher Plummer as the violent stickup man who sets out to rob his bank. Hanson didn’t direct The Silent Partner, but he wrote the script, and it is a glittering little gem of a movie.

 

 

 

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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