SULLY * * * 1 / 2
Starring Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney, Anna Gunn and Michael Rapaport. Screenplay by Todd Komarnicki. Directed by Clint Eastwood.
“We did our job,” says Tom Hanks’ Captain Chesley Sullenberger in an unguarded moment that turns out to be the emotional fulcrum and raison d’tre of Clint Eastwood’s Sully. The eighty-six-year-old director’s thirty-fifth theatrical feature is a stripped-down, unfussy salute to professionalism that pretty much serves as a statement of principles for the Eastwood oeuvre – call it The Malpaso Manifesto. In many ways Sully is the Clint Eastwood-iest movie Clint Eastwood has ever made.
We begin with Captain Sullenberger crashing U.S. Airways Flight 1549 into midtown Manhattan, killing thousands and engulfing the screen with flames before Hanks’ Sully jerks awake in a cold sweat. He’s staying in one of the movie’s countless, vaguely Kubrickian Marriotts, turning over the “Miracle on the Hudson” in his mind and second-guessing every decision as the movie darts back and forth through time. When not being trotted out for media appearances or questioned by the National Transportation Safety Board, Sully’s stewing in his own self-doubt and the film follows in the footsteps of Eastwood’s American Sniper as the story of a public hero’s private PTSD.
Of course we all know that Sullenberger’s emergency water landing that afternoon in January of 2009 was a super-heroic feat and the stuff of instant legend, so much so that one can easily imagine a thunderously banal movie culminating in the crash and probably winning several Oscars. But Eastwood (working from a script by Todd Komarnicki) is far more interested in the aftermath: a shy man shoved into the spotlight and praying it’s for the right reasons. I understand that the actual NTSB investigation was more of a formality and less like the Spanish Inquisition presented here, but much in the way American Sniper invented a nemesis to serve as a shadow-self Chris Kyle needed to kill before he could go home, the hearings in Sully are an externalization of Sullenberger’s deepest fears, asking out loud the questions he’s asking himself. (Also, it just wouldn’t be a Clint Eastwood movie without a bunch of goddamned desk jockey bureaucrats in positions of authority who don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.)
Tom Hanks has been on quite a run as of late – he’s the only actor with two Oscars I’d consider calling underrated – and Sully can be seen as the third part of a loose trilogy alongside Captain Phillips and Bridge Of Spies, in which prickly everymen rise to nearly impossible occasions. He plays the best of us but wears it lightly. This is a tremendously subtle performance, with a slight nod near the end providing a release that had the audience roaring with appreciation both times I saw the picture. It takes incredible command of your craft as an actor to understand how doing something that small will pay off so big.
People always point out how the male leads of Woody Allen films invariably end up aping their director’s mannerisms, and I’d argue the same holds true for Eastwood movies now that he’s retired from acting. I’m thinking of Matt Damon’s reticence in Hereafter and Invictus, or the steely vulnerability Bradley Cooper shocked me with in Sniper. Sometimes in Sully Hanks seems to be doing a Clint impression – it’s the most minimalist performance of his career, and he even looks taller somehow. He’s got an easy rapport with Aaron Eckhardt, who as co-pilot Jeff Skiles gets all the wisecracks we’re used to hearing from Hanks. And it must be noted that both men’s mustaches are spectacular.
Laura Linney doesn’t fare nearly as well, literally phoning it in as Mrs. Sully and always calling at the wrong time. As in most Eastwood pictures, the day players are all three or four notches bigger and louder than the main cast – although a sinister Katie Couric haunting Sullenberger’s nightmares suggests the former Today Show anchor could have a career in horror films if she wants. Hanks and Eckhart get digitally Gumped into the crew’s Letterman appearance, and there’s a hint of Eastwood’s Flags Of Our Fathers in the sly understanding of how America’s myths are marketed. A sequence in which Sully jogs through Times Square at night finds the man dwarfed by his own image on televisions and jumbotrons, alongside a skyscraper-sized Old Glory. (Worth noting that he also runs past a poster for Gran Torino, its star looming larger-than-life over the real hero’s head.)
The film returns to the crash three times from three different perspectives, but it is during the second that Sully becomes something truly remarkable. In what feels like a real-time re-creation of the water landing and rescue, we watch in awe as the fight crew guides the passengers step-by-step through emergency procedures. Ditto for the ferry boat drivers and scuba cops, everybody working together with hushed, meticulous diligence. Eastwood doesn’t editorialize, he grants no heroic poses nor the triumphant choirs of horns one might expect from a Hollywood movie soundtrack. (The noodling, jazzy score by Christian Jacob and The Tierney Sutton Band is used quite sparingly throughout the film.) This eerily quiet rescue sequence is so breathtaking because of how matter-of-factly it is presented. Eastwood never strains for affect here. He knows he doesn’t have to hype what he’s showing us.
Sully extols all the classically Eastwoodian virtues of going to work and not making a big goddamn deal out of it. You wouldn’t be crazy to notice a whiff of autobiographical identification in this tale of an old pro with forty years of experience frustrated by having to answer to young, corporate-minded whippersnappers who place far too much faith in their computer data. But most importantly, the movie does its job.