Like his American Sniper (2014), Clint Eastwood’s Sully is a movie of nightmares. In Sniper, Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) sits rigidly in the living room, imagining the gunfire, roaring helicopters and wailing bystanders of Fallujah playing out on a turned-off television as his children race through the house. In Sully, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) has his own post-trauma TV-set hallucinations: In the middle of a restless half-sleep in a Times Square Marriott, he sees Katie Couric appear on the screen and call him out for making a “wrong choice” in landing US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River instead of at a nearby airport like LaGuardia or Teterboro. Blowing off steam with a jog near the water doesn't help: During one run, Sully turns absentmindedly into the street without looking, drawing the ire of commuters.
Clint Eastwood is 86 — an old, rich white man — and has a habit of making misguided and out-of-touch observations to the press. (In a recent Esquire cover-story interview with Clint and his dead-ringer-beautiful son Scott, the director excited a frenzy with this one: “That’s the kiss-ass generation we’re in right now. We’re really in a pussy generation.”) Eastwood also has taken to making staid biopics with uncool technical gaffes (if you consider them gaffes), which get treated like smoking guns by Reddit and Twitter. To come across the garish makeup jobs of J. Edgar (2011) or the much-ballyhooed fake-baby scene of Sniper on one’s social media feed is to see Eastwood treated as a kind of defeated dinosaur, trudging along hopelessly past his prime.
Sully stands to do him no favors in these regards: This is a talky, mild-mannered drama about stoic, middle-aged white men exhibiting poise amid chaos and illustrating the sanctity of simply doing one’s job. It’s also, at 96 minutes, rather short for latter-day Eastwood, whose movies almost always run a touch over two hours. That it doesn’t feel like Sully should have been any longer is perhaps revealing of this material being a little more dry, this hero a little more bland, his conflicts less complex than in the example set by Sniper. And yet it’s more than worth seeing: Even as the media and Eastwood himself continue to pigeonhole the director as a right-wing nut with clouded, confused ideas, there is in Sully — as there is in Sniper — a purposefully conflicted reckoning with the very tenets of American heroism.
Many of his critics seem unwilling to admit or even notice that Eastwood is entirely capable of making morally fraught movies while also saying dumb things about Obama (“He doesn't go to work”). He may want to be thought of as an outlaw warrior unafraid to say or do the wrong thing, but his characters certainly don’t. Cooper’s Kyle is rarely as uncomfortable as when an ex-soldier approaches him in an auto-repair shop and lavishes him with gratitude for his service. And Hanks’ Sully, on the phone with his wife (Laura Linney) the night of the crash-landing, fantasizes about waking up on the morning of “Jan. 14” — the day before.
Screenwriter Todd Komarnicki (Perfect Stranger), who adapted Sully from the real-life Sullenberger’s book, Highest Duty (written with Jeffrey Zaslow), gives the movie an a-chronological, all-over-the-place structure, using Sully’s visions, nightmares and recollections as an underlying structural principle. With cockpit chatter progressing over a black screen, the movie at first appears to begin in media res on the Jan. 15, 2009, flight; instead, the plane comes hurtling into a giant New York City skyscraper, a hellish sight that shoots Sully awake in the middle of the night. In a similar episode following an interview with Couric — the bright lights of the 60 Minutes set beating down on Sully — the pilot peers out of a window and again sees his plane, an Airbus A320, nose-diving into a Manhattan building.
Sequences like these find Eastwood making a fascinating New York movie: The hive of a city, with its looming buildings and crooked streets, seems unusual when looked at by a director who has worked in the past on open-range Westerns and more recently in rooms and offices lit so darkly that viewers complain about them. Sully spends a lot of time in crowded Midtown, darting among hotel rooms and meetings in the aftermath of the Hudson River landing, as the decisions of Sully and his co-pilot, Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), are being examined by the NTSB. (An early scene has the board flinging questions at Sully regarding his alcohol intake, blood sugar, sleeping schedule and home life.)
In between, Sully goes for runs under the glitzy advertisements hovering over Times Square — one for Stella Artois, another, hilariously and jarringly, for Eastwood’s own Gran Torino, which came out in theaters in December 2008. When the Denison, Texas–born Sully considers these structures, especially during his nightmares, they seem a little more askew and grotesque than in real life.
While the movie takes pains to show the ugly side of Sully’s heroism — the recurring insomnia, the confrontational churn of bureaucracy, the glancing references to the money problems affecting even a decorated veteran pilot like Sully — this is still a story with a happy ending. However, rather than pose Sully as that conclusion's sole architect, Eastwood presents it as the result of a community — a city — coming together.
With the plane floating uneasily and against the clock on the frigid water, Sully guides passengers out, passing them along to the next delegate in the line of rescuers: crew members, ferry workers, aviation police officers. People come in from all angles, at high speeds, on the shortest of notice. In Sniper, Eastwood deflated the notion of heroism with sadness, the blue-and-red police lights leading Kyle’s funeral through the rain over the closing credits; here, he does it with numbers. “We did our job,” Sully tells Skiles during a reprieve from the NTSB hearings. Yes, they did — they were two of many.