As both an actor and a director, Clint Eastwood works best in the quiet. Whether in moments of complete stillness or in the heat of the action, the presence of Eastwood emerges in how everything – the hectic pace, the barrage of bombs and/or bullets, the punches thrown and landed, and the yelling – gets dialed down to a manageable level, sometimes lower than that; down to the point where you don’t even need to hear yourself think. He’s like a basketball player, talking about being in the zone where the game slows down, the senses heighten, and the ball gets smaller while the basket seem larger.
So, it is no surprise that he would be drawn to the story of Chesley Sullenberger (played by Tom Hanks), the heroic pilot who, against all odds, landed a plane full of passengers and crew that experienced dual engine failure less than two minutes after taking off, on the Hudson River. Sully just might be the perfect analogue for Eastwood’s efforts behind the camera.
That is classic Clint Eastwood. His signature films, despite the genre, involve characters who slip into the zone and act with purpose and cool precision. It is fascinating that, in the case of Sullenberger, Eastwood finds himself forced to go with an acting stand-in. Twenty-five years ago, he would have been in front of the camera too, and we would have nodded right along with the choice, recognizing just how right and true the link between these two men is.
To do what Sullenberger did in that cockpit during that fateful flight sounds like something straight out of an Eastwood movie. Think of Eastwood from Space Cowboys, the movie about aging engineers and would-be astronauts tapped to rescue a failing satellite. Or In the Line of Fire, where he plays a Secret Service agent from the Kennedy detail, seeking to outwit an assassin years later. Sullenberger making the split second determination to land a plane experiencing dual engine failure a couple of minutes after takeoff on the Hudson River – with shades of 9/11 looming in the minds of every person looking fearfully to the sky – is the kind of story that calls for the Eastwood archetype.
And yet, Eastwood handing the lead off to Hanks, signals that the director understands just how wrong that assumption actually is. Having the younger Eastwood sitting in that cockpit would have removed any and all doubt about the outcome, because no matter how dire the circumstances in any Clint Eastwood film, we never buy him experiencing genuine hesitation. Eastwood is a star, which means, his characters are extensions of him, and he’s always right. He shoots first because he knows exactly who the bad guys are and what’s going to happen. He makes all the right moves, in questionable moments, because he forces us, by sheer will, to accept his decisions.
Watching Sully, Eastwood spends an inordinate amount of time trying to place us in the head of a man who is not so sure of himself and his actions, despite the fact that what he did, in a moment of crisis, saved lives and made him a hero. The brief flight haunts Sullenberger. Although he is alive and well and safe, along with the 155 passengers who were onboard the plane, every time he replays those events, he sees the plane crashing spectacularly in New York, taking countless others to their deaths. That is definitely not a typical Eastwood approach.
But Hanks fits into this persona like a hand in a well-worn glove. Much like Eastwood has his particular star mode, Hanks has comfortably settled into the all-American guy role, the man of honor who does the right thing, but never without acknowledging the fear and desperation that drives him. Remember Saving Private Ryan? His Captain Miller led his troops into harm’s way, braving death every second, but what likely stands out, when we think of that character, is the moment when we see his hands shaking. The fear is alive him him; it is the drumbeat of his heart.
That is what Eastwood gets so right in this retelling of Chesley Sullenberger’s story. He does the right thing in the moment, but then must struggle to appreciate just how right it truly was. That doesn’t come easily. Sully shows us how difficult it is to be heroic in today’s world, to trust in ourselves in the midst of the cacophony of social media attention. It is Eastwood, once again, finding and working in the quiet. (Opens wide Friday) (PG-13) Grade: A