Sully – a review

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Tom Hanks as Sully and Aaron Eckhart as his co-pilot

One of the surprises, to me at least, of seeing friends astonished at Clint Eastwood’s right-wing rants, (“That’s the kiss-ass generation we’re in right now. We’re really in a pussy generation”) his public gaffes, (“Obama doesn’t go to work!”) and admiration for Trump, (“He been elected. Live with it.”) is why none notice the glaring right-wing ideology injected into most of the films he has directed, and a few he only starred in.

One of his best, outside the acclaimed The Outlaw Josey Wales, is his four Academy Awards boxing drama, Million Dollar Baby. There is a scene in which his female boxing protégée, played by Hillary Swank, buys a house for her selfish mother and sister out of the proceeds from her match winnings, only to be told by her mother she doesn’t want the gift because it negates her eligibility to collect welfare money.

That scene is not in the novel, and it’s debatable it was in the original draft of the screenplay, but it’s vintage Eastwood the unapologetic Republican. Assuming you are politically savvy, he always has had a way of making you groan just when you were smiling, screwing up a potentially fine film with his cockeyed, clumsy view of  political right and wrong. Yet he knows how to create a movie filled with moral ambiguity.

I had to check Eastwood’s age, thinking him 77 or 78. He is 86. (His mother, a Scot, lived until almost 100 years of age.) Clint Eastwood is that very American thing, an old, rich, self-opinionated, misogynistic, right-wing, arrogant white man, with an annoying habit of making misguided and stupid observations to the press, or at empty chairs.

He’s well past the time of life when most directors are retired, appearing in public to be given lifetime achievement awards, or reminiscing about the good old days on chat shows before an adoring audience of fans. A lot of critics treat him as a washed up dinosaur, hopelessly past his prime. For Eastwood, his right-wing politics are back in popularity, and again he can make films about kick ass American heroes.

He keeps returning with another finely crafted film and we forgive him, and give him one more chance. Sadly, Sully isn’t a winner, not this time.

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Eastwood and Hanks on location

It doesn’t help Eastwood’s image that the star of his current film, Tom Hanks – a well-known liberal supporter of Obama’s form of making America great again – found working with Eastwood an uneasy experience. “He treats actors a bit like horses”, (presumably he moves them around like unruly animals). “You don’t want one of his looks. He doesn’t say ‘cut’. He says, ‘That’ll be  enough of that’. It’s as intimidating as hell!”

Sully is based  on the amazing incident of US Airways Flight 1549, just out of New York airport, losing both engines to a flock of geese, forcing the pilot, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, to ditch the plane, belly flop it, in the Hudson River.

Like his American Sniper, (2014) Eastwood’s Sully is about a hero of sorts, and a movie of recurring nightmares. In Sniper, Chris Kyle, (Bradley Cooper) sits at home reimagining the gunfire, bombs, and helicopter racketing he endured in Fallujah. In Sully, (Tom Hanks) the pilot of the aircraft, a man who ought to have walked away, mission accomplished, all 155 passengers safe, no injuries, has his own post-trauma fears and hallucinations.

Sully has to deal with awkward questions from the media trying to pick fault in his judgement, and the necessary aviation inquiry, (US use inquire and enquire as the same thing) doing the same thing, convinced he could have landed his plane safely at the nearby LaGuardia airport. This is Eastwood saying, to hell with interfering bureaucrats, the guy’s a hero. Leave him alone.  Unfortunately Eastwood depicts the legitimate investigative  lawyers as petty and clueless, yet another signal the right-wing hemisphere of his brain over-rides the left.

Around the world, the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigations are regarded by the aviation world as setting the gold standard for impartiality, perceptiveness and making recommendations with important safety benefits. The NTSB has saved countless lives. The Board has no regulatory ability to turn its recommendations into practice. It relies solely on a moral authority founded on its reputation for diligence.

By making a mockery of the NTSB inquisitors Sully smears this reputation for the sake of a hero who needed no false arguments or cast as society’s victim. An early scene has the Board flinging questions at Sully regarding his alcohol intake, blood sugar, sleeping schedule and home life. So what? That’s standard practice in such assessments of what went wrong and right.

By the nature of the story, the crash landing followed by intense media interest, plus the formal investigation, Sully is weighed down by too much flaccid talk-talk delivered in a whispering, pious manner, rendering it a genteel, mild-mannered drama about stoic, middle-aged white men exhibiting heroic poise amid chaos, while illustrating the righteousness of simply  doing one’s job.

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The real Sully, whose career some felt jeopardised by the subsequent hearing

At 96 minutes Sully is a pot boiler for the latter-day Eastwood, whose movies almost always run just over two hours. However, the movie feels right at that length – the duration of a dream – because Sully isn’t that complex a character, and anyhow we know how it all turned out. There’s not much tension to call drama. He and co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) were hailed as heroes, praised to heaven by passengers and crew.

The real Sully often joined Eastwood and Hanks on the set. According to Hanks he was a “strong presence” even criticising Eastwood for his lack of punctuality when he was 20 minutes late. He left Hanks with the impression of a man of precision and exactitude.

“Sully was very particular about how we portrayed the procedure and the emotions. He pulled out this dog-eared, stapled and notated script that he had read. I’m sure his wife had even written ‘No’ across it in lipstick! We went through every page and every moment, every beat had been commented on. He had opinions.”

The screenwriter is Todd Komarnicki whose previous credits include Perfect Stranger. He adapted Sully from Sullenberger’s own book, Highest Duty, (co-written with Jeffrey Zaslow). He gives the movie an a-chronological, all-over-the-place structure which I found initially confusing, doing my best to place Sully’s visions, nightmares and recollections in the right order. I note the radio and television trailers avoid conveying that aspect.

On reflection, I can’t think of an alternative structure for what is, after all, a very straight-forward, simple story. It seems the only way to make it sophisticated and viable as drama.

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Going down, brace yourselves! Erroneously the film shows US Airways new livery, not the one at the time of the ‘Miracle on the Hudson’

With cockpit chatter progressing over a black screen, the movie at first appears to begin with the crash on the Jan. 15, 2009, flight; instead, the plane comes hurtling into a giant New York City skyscraper, a hellish sight that shoots Sully awake in the middle of the night. The trauma that must be piloting a falling aircraft over a major city afflicts Sully from the moment the last passenger is rescued by a boat from the plane’s wing and the Hudson’s freezing waters.

Thereafter, Eastwood’s cinematographer Tom Stern gives Manhattan’s streets, alleyways and buildings a surreal quality as we flip back and forth to the inquiry. I’m used to Eastwood the director of characters in vast landscapes and open-range westerns, his log cabin interiors so dark you can hardly see a thing, so it comes as a pleasant discovery he can shoot cityscapes in bright light. That slightly askew vision suits the  pre-crash mind of Sully as the Texas-born chief pilot attends press conferences and social gatherings.

The movie takes pains to show the down side of Sully’s heroic act – recurring insomnia, the confrontational churn of bureaucracy, references to money problems affecting even a decorated veteran pilot like Sully – but we still get a film with a happy ending. There is a feeling of community, and a suspicion it might just be extreme right-wing Republican.

“We did our job,” the generous Sully tells his co-pilot Skiles, during a quiet moment of reflection, a remark that includes his catering crew. Yes, they did, every one of them.

While Eastwood lines up his next project we are left juggling with the thinness of this one and his leaden pronouncements on the vainglorious and shallow Trump. Eastwood’s movie characters rarely say anything awkward or stupid, but Eastwood does. “Trump is onto something, because secretly everybody’s getting tired of political correctness”.

Maybe Eastwood should zip up his private politics. As his Dirty Harry character once said, “A man’s gotta know his limitations.”

  • Star rating: Three stars
  • Cast: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart
  • Director: Clint Eastwood
  • Writer: Tod Komarnicki
  • Cinematographer: Tom Stern
  • Duration: 96 minutes
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