(Clint Eastwood, USA, 2016)
While I remain unconvinced that Eastwood's body of work as a filmmaker constitutes a truly exceptional artistic vision, I find myself increasingly inclined to give him more credit, particularly after seeing Sully. It's a nearly perfect film, transcending Eastwood's expected proficiency and presenting a striking moral vision, a depiction of heroism as humanism, and vice-versa. The film is compact, streamlined, and yet it never feels rushed or reduced. The details feel uniformly correct; the performances are nuanced and un-showy. Sully succeeds as a work of organic unity, a finely tuned orchestration of emotions, moving the insistent beat of an idea. From Eastwood on down - including Hanks, at the absolute top of his game, exuding decency and harrowing strain - everyone is doing their part to honor the miraculous events, without undue fuss or embellishment. The wholeness of the work, its focus and its awed calm, creates an almost ecstatic effect; for me the experience was unaccountably moving.
But not entirely unaccountably so. To account, then: Eastwood deliberately depicts Sully as the real man apparently wishes to be perceived; as a consummate professional, heroic only by circumstances, and if so, only one hero of many. His flight crew becomes, in a moment of potentially terrible fate, a crack team of life-savers. Ditto the passengers, who help each other through the ordeal in relative calm and orderliness. Ditto also all of those who rushed to assist, from the ferry captains to the first responders. The film at its finest is a tale of people at their finest; not as paragons but as human beings, moral agents in a chaotic and unfathomable universe, where the mundane can very quickly transform into the horrific, or the miraculous. It also pays tribute to the universal need for narratives, to the very human requirement for a valuation of the human, particularly in an age of fantastically complex and powerful machines. Sully is a hero because he needed to be one - first to land the plane, and then to serve as the receptacle of people's highest aspirations. And to weather both the real events and the subsequent lionization with something like grace.
The one flaw, and a sign of Eastwood's own political baggage, has to do with the depiction of the federal committee that is convened to determine whether the "miraculous" landing was in fact caused by a pilot error, and that he would've been better off taking the plane back to La Guardia or Teterboro airport in New Jersey. The committee is shown from the outset as being hostile, arrogant bureaucrats, only slightly restrained in their condescension to Sully and in their preference for computer simulation over actual events. In the climatic final scene, it's even suggested that they were guilty of a kind of deck-stacking, concealing vital details from Sully and the proceedings, in order to bolster their version of events. In a film that goes out of its way to respect everyone involved, this is an unfortunate lapse into caricature. What would it have cost the narrative to show the committee members as similarly professional, rather than craven and scheming? In fact, it would have strengthened an already formidable film, further harmonizing with the overall theme.
But the film is predominantly magnanimous, and it's to Eastwood's credit that he consistently favors subtlety over simplification. On a metafilmic note, it was also immensely satisfying to experience the delicious thrill of suspense without a resort to the kind of ludicrous bombast that has come to pass for "action." Even knowing, as we all do, of the safe delivery of every soul on board, it was a heartening reaffirmation of the power of visual storytelling in building dramatic tension - and with such deceptively simple means. Here again, my hat is off to Eastwood. That the film was so popular only belies the usual nonsense about the death of cinema, or the general dullness of the audience. People do want to see, and to experience, and they'll consume quality if it's delivered.
How can we compare this, then, to 2014's American Sniper? What can account for Sully's steely excellence and Sniper's gauzy imprecision? A director's main job is the creation of a world, and Eastwood's career has been marked, especially lately, with a preference for real-world stories. He's a filmmaker of immense moral seriousness, and for someone so inclined, moralism becomes an occupational hazard. Sniper's flaw was in its inability to grapple with the actual cirtumstances of Chris Kyle's life and death, which included the criminality of the Iraq War. His depiction of Kyle was nuanced, but it was hemmed in by the tale of heroism that Eastwood's own sensibility seemed to require. There's a limit to the heroic ideal that Eastwood so admires; a certain flattening of vision, a willingness to see the world in binaries of strength and weakness, virtue and vice. At his best, as in Sully, the ideal is given contour and depth through the diffusion of heroism into a collective enterprise, and a moment of serendipity that becomes re-interpreted as brilliance. At his worst, it becomes a prerogative for narrowness. In American Sniper, the victims are absent, and the cost of war is internalized as a test of manhood. In Sully, we are moved by the fact that we are all potential victims, by the human frailty is that is ever-present, even in Sully at his finest.