Sully: Miracle on the Hudson has a certain Frank Capra quality to it.
To be fair, a lot of that comes from the casting of Tom Hanks in the title role. Hanks radiates a certain ineffable integrity, a “Hanksian Decency” that informs his performances in films as diverse as Bridge of Spies and Inferno. It is tempting to think of him as “America’s Dad”, particularly given the grey hair and the moustache that he donned for the title role here. However, it is also tempting to think of him as a latter-day Jimmy Stewart, the embodiment of a certain type of fundamental American decency that lends itself to this sort of narrative.
Similarly, director Clint Eastwood has a similar philosophy. Eastwood’s films tend to be organised around strong moral principles. Often those principles are articulated in terms of personal responsibility, particularly the responsibility that individuals have for others whether in a professional capacity (J. Edgar) or a personal capacity (Million Dollar Baby) or simply by virtue of being there (Gran Torino). Eastwood’s recurring fascination with individual responsibility makes him a quintessentially American director.
This combination is ideally suited to Sully, which is constructed as something akin to a modern-day American fairytale.
The biggest issue with Sully is the length that the film has to go to in order to frame its protagonist as an embattled American hero. Sully is a film that effective extends an event that last two-hundred-and-eight seconds over one-hundred-and-forty minutes. In order to do that, the film occasionally takes a somewhat sensationalist approach to its story. Sully repeatedly suggests that its protagonist is just one phone call away from being thrown under the bus, haunted by apocalyptic visions and self-doubt worthy of the moodiest superhero blockbuster.
“I’m having difficulty distinguishing between the real world and… whatever the hell this is,” the title character confesses early in the film, jogging through New York on a cold winter evening. It is easy to see why the character might end up confused, particularly given the film in which he has found himself. There is a recurring sense of unreality to the film, to the point that the the audience is treated to any number of horrific alternate versions of the “forced water landing” before actually getting to see the scene play out in any real detail.
Then again, all of this is very much in service of Eastwood’s big thematic concern. Sully is very much an ode to individual heroism, a loving tribute to a great man who made a split-second decision that saved one hundred and fifty five lives. In the grand tradition of Frank Capra, and arguably in the larger context of American pop culture, this tribute to an individual is juxtaposed against a number of larger and unfeeling systems. In the case of Sully, the lead character finds himself subject to vested interests from the media to the airline insurance companies.
Time and again, Sully returns to the importance of human feeling and individual instinct inside any complex system. Asked how he could possible know that there was no way to make it to a runway, Sully responds simply, “I eyeballed it.” When the authorities run computer simulations that run counter to the character’s opinion, his co-pilot vocally complains, “They’re playing Pac-Man with one-hundred-and-fifty-five lives.” Later he laments, “This wasn’t a video game.”
The central conflicts of Sully are all framed in these terms, with the idea Sully as the embodiment of individual decency thrown against the unfeeling computer-simulation-led bureaucracy. Sully’s observations are repeatedly thrown into doubt by characters with much less practical experience than he has. The audience is constantly asked to trust Sully’s judgement over the calculations generated by unfeeling computer banks and stage-managed rehearsals that have worked so hard to remove anything human from the equation.
Sully contrasts the human and emotional response of the rescuers to the cynical and exploitative manipulations of a media eager to feed the churn of the twenty-hour news cycle. The heroes of Sully are generally working stiffs doing their jobs; the air traffic controller who is left alone with his guilt by a system that doesn’t think to let him know the plane survived, the helicopter tour guide who happens to spot the plane coming in low over the river, the first respondents who insist “nobody dies today” as the media warns the passengers are only “moments from death.”
Sully is the most human and the most individual of these characters. At one point, his co-pilot admits surprise to discover that Sully single-handedly runs a flight safety business that would appear to be staffed by dozens (if not hundreds) of consultants. As the plane goes down, Sully hands out coats to the passengers fleeing the plane. He takes personal responsibility to ensure that no person is left behind, wading hip-deep into freezing cold water in order to check the back rows.
At the same time, Sully repeatedly draws attention to the failures of larger systems. A limo driver near the start of the film remarks that this is precisely the feel-good story that the world needs in the era of the Great Recession. Sully’s wife worries about how long the investigation will take, because those same banks affected by the Great Recession are now threatening to foreclose upon the family’s property. Sully has nightmares about what happened if he made the wrong choice, but he also has nightmares about what would happen if the media turned on him.
Indeed, Sully even seems somewhat ambivalent to its own existence. The movie is acknowledges that it is a product of a larger and more cynical system that is putting Chesley Sullenberger through the wringer for its own purposes. One of the movie’s more effective sequences finds Sully jogging through Time Square late at night. He turns a corner as the billboards show footage of the rescue and the camera follows him. There is a 2009-appropriate billboard for Gran Torino, which leads to a nice shot of Clint Eastwood’s face staring down at Sully from the billboard, watching.
There is a sense that Sully is being framed in the great American tradition of the triumph of the individual over the heartless system. Sully is a loving tribute to the hero who follows his gut and makes an impossible decision that saves countless lives. There is a raw emotive power to that story, and the combination of Clint Eastwood and Tom Hanks seems perfectly suited to telling that tale. And deservedly so. Chesley Sullenberger did something truly remarkable that saved more than one-hundred-and-fifty lives; if ever a story deserved that treatment, it is this.
It could fairly be argued that Sully does a much better job of capturing that old-fashioned Hollywood heroic sensibility than a more obvious pastiche like Allied. The film very clearly take place in January 2009, being based around specific events. However, there is a very timeless quality to the core themes and the central ideas. Sully might be a modern film in terms of computer-generated imagery and IMAX cameras, but it belongs as part of a much older and grander Hollywood tradition. It captures that feeling remarkably well.
At the same time, Sully feels marred by its release date. Watching Sully in November 2016 is very much a reminder of the dangers of this sort of mythology. Sully demonstrates the way in which this most iconic of American myths can be subverted or exploited. There is an aspect of Sully that plays very much to the narrative of Donald Trump, who based his whole campaign around this sort of myth of a rugged individualist who was fighting against an unfair system. One imagines that many Trump supporters view the media with the same suspicion as Sully himself.
None of this is Sully‘s fault. After all, the movie makes a very compelling case that Sullenberger is deserving of that core American mythology that Trump cynically coopted. Although many of his supporters seem to accept that narrative of the Trump campaign, the simple fact is that Trump is not even a good (or accurate) example of rugged American individualism. More than that, Sully was in production long before Trump kicked off his campaign, depicting events that occurred well outside this election cycle.
And, yet, there is a faint uncomfortable after-taste to Sully. The film feels very much like a reminder of several awkward truths. On the most immediate level, the movie demonstrates precisely why somebody like Clint Eastwood might support a Trump presidency. However, more fundamentally than that, it is a powerful example of how deeply engrained this myth is in terms of the American psyche. There is nothing wrong with that of itself. After all, Sully is a loving tribute to a deserving hero who did something truly remarkable in 2009.
However, Sully also plays as an awkward counterpoint to one of the great tragedies of 2016. This gives the movie an unexpected weight, and a curious power. It is a movie that is at once an endearingly timeless piece of Americana and an uncomfortably uncanny snapshot of the current moment.