BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC The lean, squinty, man-of-few-words Clint Eastwood has had an affinity for pilots going back to one of his earliest roles, dropping the bomb on top of the giant spider in the 50s sci-fi classic, Tarantula. Those stoic figures, who hold the lives of others in the palms of their hands, fits right into mold of many of the characters Eastwood himself has played: stoic, solitary men who we can count on in dangerous times to get the job done. With the true story of Charles Sullenberger, the U.S. Airways pilot who emergency landed a commercial airliner in the Hudson River off New York City in 2009, Eastwood has found a fresh angle on his longtime themes to deliver one of his sharpest, most efficiently-directed films.
Telling the story of the events of January 2009, Sully begins in the hours just after the crash, where in a blur of trauma and instant celebrity, the gray-haired pilot (with a dependable Tom Hanks in a role Eastwood himself would have enjoyed playing) pieces together the recent (and not so recent) events of his life. The quiet elation turns to doubt as facts begin to suggest that Sully isn’t a brave hero but an airborne Homer Simpson who ditched an expensive jet liner in spectacular fashion when he could have just safely turned the jet around and landed all those passengers back at the airport. Sully seems sure that ditching the plane was the the right decision, mainly because he believe his instincts, but getting the F.A.A. investigators to understand that might be Sully’s most careful maneuver yet.
Eastwood the Icon is so beloved that fans are a bit overly-forgiving of his work as a director, where heavy-handedness and over-length can be argued as among his nagging weaknesses. But with Eastwood’s 35th feature as a director he delivers his story in a concise 96 minutes, aided by Todd Komarnicki’s no-nonsense screenplay. Despite some unnecessary flashbacks of Sully’s history in the air, the film shows the pilot continually haunted by the plane’s splashdown, mimicking the pilot’s traumatized mind as he tries to make sense of the events he has lived through.
The film will stand among Eastwood’s late career highlights but seeing it in this moment, my mind couldn’t help but wander back to Eastwood’s political leanings, which have protruded awkwardly in recent films like the heavily-fictionalized “true story” American Sniper and the oddly sympathetic biopic of F.B.I. tyrant J. Edgar Hoover. Hearing Eastwood start his press jaunt by saying he’d be voting for Trump over Clinton made it difficult to clear his politics from my mind although the story of a heroic airline pilot would seem tailor-made to escape any political readings an audience might assign.
Yet Eastwood’s stubbornly Libertarian perspective gets in there, particularly in making antagonists out of the government officials at the Federal Aviation Administration. Over the course of their investigation these frumpy, balding nags dare to ask the hero a few questions and treat Sully in a condescending, disrespectful manner that seems highly unlikely. (F.A.A. officials have already started complaining to the press about their depiction.) Eastwood is an aggrieved old white guy and a movie cowboy at heart, if his story doesn’t actually have a bad guy to vanquish, he has seen it as his dramatic duty to invent one.
But if you’re looking for the truth, it is hard to love almost any Hollywood film; they didn’t call it “The Dream Factory” for nothing. If you’re looking for some great acting, a suspenseful airborne emergency and some terse courtroom theatrics, Sully makes for a worthy night out at the cinema. But I’d give the mythmaking within as skeptical an eye as the real Sully does: disaster was averted but the pilot continues to protest that he was just doing his job.