Ads for Sully promise an “untold story”—a stranger-than-fiction reveal. And its opening sequence delivers something like that. Within minutes, a passenger jet careens through Midtown Manhattan. It’s at a perilously low altitude before it drops out of the sky altogether and plows into a high-rise. Just as the airliner detonates in an eruption of mortar and jet fuel, the movie cuts away. It was all a dream.
It’s a dream the movie returns to repeatedly. We witness the scene from multiple angles: the air, street level, from cars passing on the George Washington Bridge. And if anyone manages to miss the event director Clint Eastwood is trying to invoke, one character eventually spells it out: “It’s been a while since New York has had news this good,” one typically worshipful fan gushes. “Especially with an airplane in it.”
That Sully is opening on the 15th anniversary of the September 11 attacks is no coincidence, and as an ode to good, old-fashioned American can-do, it’s a surprisingly solid throwback. This is as close as Eastwood has come to the righteous confidence of Frank Capra or Howard Hawks. Eastwood has always admired workmanlike professionalism but has never quite been able to pull it off himself. Next to similarly minded filmmakers like Michael Mann, Eastwood’s movies can feel hasty and incomplete. Part of that’s due to his one-take style—he famously doesn’t sweat the details—but some of his shoddier efforts have the scent of outsider art; at their worst, they’re almost incompetent.
Sully, however, takes competence as its subject, and it reflects the grace-under-fire professionalism of Sullenberger himself. But at a certain point, confidence sours into pride. Sully invents a villain in an NTSB board whose own professionalism is bizarrely framed as insidious. Testifying before them, the movie’s Sullenberger smugly insists their investigation account for the “human element.” But Eastwood isn’t interested in the human Sullenberger either. As played by Tom Hanks at his most upstanding, he’s a man who acts with absolute nobility, with nothing but the truest intentions and sure of his every move. He’s almost divine. (That goes for his physiology, too; an emergency responder describes Sullenberger’s blood pressure as “not just good—extraordinary.”)
Unlike Hank’s other recent captain, whose stoicism finally cracked to reveal a man broken in two, this one is more myth than man—another superhero. As a piece of proudly conservative canonization, Sully is remarkably efficient. But it’s soft too. Despite a career-long fascination with sober masculinity, Eastwood tends to avoid tough examination in favor of easy benediction. And as with J. Edgar, one can’t escape the feeling that the most interesting story is left untold.
Sully. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Todd Komarnicki. Starring Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, and Laura Linney. Opens in Kansas City September 9, 2016.