Overview: After his bravura emergency landing of an airplane on the Hudson River, Captain Sully Sullenberger is forced to consider if he made the right call. Warner Bros. Pictures; 2016; Rated PG-13; 96 Minutes.
The Outlaw: I used to think of Clint Eastwood as a sort of director-out-of-time. His sensibilities bend towards an unfussy formalism that feels – while certainly not outdated – distinctly classical. In the case of his last film, American Sniper, this led to accusations of jingoism and glorification on Eastwood’s part. Many critics had a hard time picking up on that film’s deconstructive elements, and I think it’s largely because Eastwood’s filmmaking is so straightforward as to conceal its stabs at subversion.
With his latest film, though, he makes things a little more obvious. His second successive film about a Great American Man, Sully makes a case against that glorification. Eastwood’s Captain Sully is paralyzed by self-doubt; the camera often shrouds him in steam, fog, and darkness, those quintessential New Yorkian qualities. Even before the question is raised by federal officials, Sully obsesses over the idea that his successful maneuver may have been the wrong decision. Yes, he saved everyone, but did he also put them all in danger? At one point late in the film, Sully’s wife calls him in tears. Though they’ve spoken several times since the crash, it only just now hit her that her husband almost died. Characters in this film are burdened with the weight of what could have happened to the point that it overshadows what actually did. Sully is defined by his decisive action, but his film is haunted by possibility. Several times, Eastwood shows Sully having dreams or hallucinations of crashing the plane in the middle of Manhattan. Its release date, so close to the 15th anniversary of 9/11, is no accident. Sully is Eastwood’s post-9/11 Great American Man: Tortured, anxious, interrogated, and ultimately correct.
Black Box: That focus on possibility is made manifest in the film’s recurring references to flight simulations. The computer algorithm, Sully is told, shows that he could have made it safely back to the airport. This sets the film up for a “man vs. machine” showdown, where Sully proves that no computer program could truly recreate what it’s like to be a pilot. Later in the film, Sully again protests the use of live pilots recreating his flight using a simulator. What’s missing, he argues, is the knowledge of the lives in the pilot’s protection, the stakes of each decision they make. When Eastwood stages his own simulation of the landing, he makes sure to spend as much time with the other people on board as possible. This redeems what would otherwise be a trite anti-technology message. Eastwood imbues his digital recreation of the event with as much life as he can. Digital filmmaking on the studio level is almost never so nakedly humanist.
Overall: Sully is an effective examination of an American crisis of uncertainty, enhanced by Eastwood’s modest and humane eye.
Featured Image: Warner Bros. Pictures