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The Beauty of ‘Sully’: How Clint Eastwood Turned Chesley Sullenberger Into a Countercultural Hero

When I first heard that Clint Eastwood was going to turn the story of Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger into a major motion picture, I had two thoughts: first, that the subject seemed almost too on-the-nose and down-the-middle-of-the-plate for a Hollywood heroic saga. (It sounded like the sort of thing that would have been a routine network TV-movie back in the ’80s or early ’90s.) And second, that the film might be more challenging to bring off than it initially seemed. After all, when Sullenberger glided US Airways Flight 1549 down onto the Hudson River on Jan. 15, 2009, the entire emergency landing, from engine failure to plane stoppage, took three-and-a-half minutes. (Or more exactly, to quote a now-famous line, 208 seconds.) What was Eastwood going to do for the rest of the movie? At the time of the event, both the “Miracle on the Hudson” and Sully himself were so rapturously celebrated, by human beings around the planet and by the media coverage that channeled (and, to a degree, drove) their affection and hero worship, that a drama about the event, made seven years later, would seem to have almost nothing new to discover.

“Sully,” of course, has turned out to be a movie that leaves audiences at once stirred and enthralled. At its center is Tom Hanks’ most captivating performance since “Cast Away” (he dials himself down to Sully’s simmering quietude, and is riveting as a result), and the drama is a model of canny construction and almost invisibly sly classical moviemaking. Eastwood structures it beautifully, circling around the cataclysmic event, coming at it from a plethora of angles, even staging alternate disaster scenarios (so that the movie, in the words of Variety critic Peter Debruge, offers “six plane crashes for the price of one”). In doing so, he gives you the feeling that the story of the Miracle on the Hudson is much larger than those 208 seconds. And “Sully” demonstrates that it is.

Yet the canniest thing that Eastwood did, and the most personal too (for it emerges directly out of his right-wing Western freedom-rider mystique), is to take a figure like “Sully” Sullenberger, who seemed to be a hero out of central casting — bold, modest, quick of reflex, valiant yet self-effacing — and reconfigure him from a man who exemplifies America at its best to a man who stands in opposition to most of the reigning currents of our society. In the movie, there’s a force that’s threatening to drag Sully down, and that force is the “well-meaning” government-meets-corporate nitpicking bureaucracy. It has made too many regulations, relies too much on the dubious wisdom of statistics and technology, and has fundamentally lost touch with the human factor. “Sully” is a rousing piece of entertainment, but the film’s resonant and touching glory is that it’s the celebration of a rock-solid ’50s man who has grown taller than the world around him because he relies, in a tight spot, on nothing but himself and therefore — irony of ironies — now looks like an outlier. “Sully” has become the story of a countercultural hero.

The forces that Sully is up against, as he faces down the second-guessing suits of the National Transportation Safety Board, stand in for the lockstep, follow-the-rules-or-you’re-gone mentality that has taken over the very form and spirit of American life. What you say, what you do, even what you think: There’s an increasingly prevailing sense, right or wrong, that the protocols of work and government now dictate more and more of the hoops we all have to jump through — and, indeed, everything that we are. The theme of the individual who feels beaten down by the larger machine is, of course, not new; it’s one of the central themes of the last century. But what’s bracing about “Sully” is that it presents us with someone who acted out of fearless strength and skill, and was justly lionized for it all over the world, and the movie says: In our era, it’s not just you or me who can feel worked over by the bureaucracy. Even “Sully” Sullenberger got worked over by the bureaucracy. If he’s not safe, who is?

Of course, the members of the National Transportation Safety Board are just doing their jobs. That’s part of what’s agonizing about their grilling of Sully. The issue at hand is: Did he make the right decision? Minutes after takeoff, just after a flock of Canada geese had smashed into his engines, could he, in fact, have turned the flight around and landed back at LaGuardia Airport? That’s a legitimate question, and we probably wouldn’t want to live in a world where there wasn’t a committee that possessed the will, and the technological tools, to try and get at the right answer. Yet what “Sully” dramatizes is how a subtle presumption of guilt is built into the bureaucratic process. The committee members look at what happened (and at the money it cost US Airways), and their reflexive action is to say: How could this accident have come out better? How might an admittedly bad situation have been salvaged more efficiently? Their profit/efficiency motive turns into the weapon they wield against Sully. It becomes the presumption of wrongdoing that allows the bureaucracy to finger and blame the individual.

In the end, of course, they’re proved wrong. But if “Sully” were just about how Chesley Sullenberger had to endure a few days’ worth of official skepticism to validate the actions he took on that fateful day, the movie wouldn’t have the power it does. The real message is that he acted as he did, and saved every one of those 155 lives, because he operated on instinct, letting himself think outside the box. He wasn’t acting in the straight-line corporate way — and that was the measure of his heroism. What “Sully” celebrates is that the giddy improbability of the Miracle on the Hudson — the whole image of that plane landing and then, once it lands, the passengers standing on the wings as if they were walking on water — represents an act of audacity and fellow-feeling that sliced against the rules, the government and corporate playbooks, the bean-counters and the bureaucrats. “Sully” tells a true-life story with great emotional intimacy and detail, but part of what makes it such a superb movie is that it works as a kind of living metaphor: It captures how people feel about the moment we’re in, and about what real rebellion looks like in a world with too many rules.

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