Yes, you heard right: a career high.
In Clint Eastwood’s latest complex-hero film, Mr. Hanks plays Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the US Airways pilot whose plane engines were fatally damaged by a flock of geese seconds after take-off, and who had to emergency-land 155 passengers on New York City’s Hudson River. (All on board survived, with minor injuries.) In this improbably true story, Hanks’ good-guy charm has never been better used. And it’s because because Eastwood undermines it, questions it, examines it under a microscope. There’s a solid minimalism in the way Hanks-as-Sully tenses his cheek muscles, glares coolly at his inquisitors, explaining that what he did was a) not heroic, and b) not a one-man job. (The real Sullenberger gives a lot of the credit for the “Miracle on the Hudson” to his co-pilot, flight attendants and the Coast Guard for their speedy response under pressure.) The buttoned-up Hanks goes for some seriously Bressonian non-emoting here. As Eastwood’s camera takes us through an incident that would send many capable pilots into swirling panic attacks, Hanks is disturbingly zen, locked-in, sealed off from the chaos of his vicinity. The time between the engine’s failure and the final water-landing takes no more than 208 seconds, or three minutes and some change. Sully, amazingly, makes it — mainly because he doesn’t seem to be thinking about doing a water landing. He simply does it. The press hound him for it.
“Hero Sully,” the reporters cry, “there must be more to you than you let on!” The talk of the town, from Mike Bloomberg to Dave Letterman, want to know the Secret of Sully. But Sully doesn’t budge. He cracks no smiles until the uneasy end, when he celebrates with his co-pilot (Aaron Eckhart), both jaunty with joy as they walk down a “Point Blank” hallway, exit it, the camera lingering on the post-person emptiness. Sully sports a deer-in-headlights look in his sad eyes, as press cameras and Joe and Jane Schmos on the street pepper him with snappy questions, hugs, pleads, praise, demands. In the end, though, Hanks’ Sullenberger remains a mystery — to the mainstream media, the airline insurance folk, the American people and himself.
Eastwood’s stripped-down film neither maximizes nor minimizes Sullenberger’s efforts on that cold January day. It prefers a flat, observational look — a quiet nonchalance that’s reflected in the interestingly low-key Hanks performance. The acting across-the-board is as stripped down as Eastwood’s shooting style: no congestion, no flashy camerawork for its own sake. The director has set the actor in a state of Buddhist calm. The actor-subject dominates the frame, and all technique is subordinate to the personal drama taking place a few feet in front of the camera.
Time and time again, Eastwood gets tons of mileage out of atomic character moments:
(1) Hanks’ most intriguing tic is a PTSD twitch that Sully acquires in his right thumb. It developed when he was in the broken airplane’s cockpit, his thumb hovering over the red throttle button, gambling on whether to fly back to an airport with a broken engine, or risk a water landing that statistically would have lead to certain death. Even when he’s safely in the womb of a swanky New York hotel, Sully’s thumb seems locked permanently over an invisible red button.
(2) There’s the subtle Anna Gunn (“Breaking Bad”), as one of the panel members who grills Sully on his handling of the Hudson landing. Gunn’s face bears a laser-sharp intensity. It’s a quiet thrill to see her go from feng shui to “fuck my life.” Gunn starts off in an animatronic, we-need-to-get-this-done mode that recalls the Rashida Jones lawyer of “The Social Network.” But this seemingly cool, calm and collected cat ends in an entirely different register. As she understands Sully’s intentions, she closes her eyes in deep pockets of despair. She’s so good at playing embarrassed, you can’t even look into Gunn’s screen eyes; the moment of embarrassment for all in the room is palpable. The committee has made a fool of itself, using rinky-dinky computer simulations that never take “the human factor” into account. Whether or not these moments are accurate or contrived is beside the point; the main draw of these riveting scenes is the actor, placed gingerly by Eastwood at the center of this turbulent universe.
(3) A bougie white father and his two sons have an almost comic lack of self-awareness that endears us to them. They are three of the 155 who will have their worlds rocked by the Miracle, dancing near the edge of certain death. But when they’re introduced, all we can see are toothy Cheshire Cat’s grins in mock playfulness. As these late-comers try to convince a stewardess to let them onto the fateful flight, they emit fake laughs, back-slapping and sickly smug jokes (“we need to board NOW! Emergency!” “What emergency?” “ … a golf emergency!”) liable to make you groan in your seat in disgust. With these broad character sketches, an entire world is conjured up before our eyes: one of class privilege and cushiony comfort, a world whose idea of catastrophe is blown-out BMW tires on the freeway. Once they’re out of harm’s way, these three return back to the old smug schtick.
These character moments — images of actors losing themselves in roles bigger than them — overcome all the irritating and cliché trappings inherent to the “Sully” screenplay, a leaden horror show often lazily upfront about its intentions. “Sully” proves Eastwood is a natural with the moving image. Give him a page and ask him to only write, he would fail dismally. Words slow him down, fix him into place, make him say things that don’t adequately capture the quiet intrigue of his dainty, elastic, any-politics-go images. (Just read over his endorsement of the Angry Cheeto Puff to get what I’m getting at.)
What makes “Sully” work isn’t just the “human element” Mr. Hanks brings into the film. It’s also the city element of NYC, as much a living-breathing character as Los Angeles in Jacques Demy’s “Model Shop” or Nashville in Altman’s “Nashville.” Though all the Hudson scenes were CG’d in during post-production, the NYC atmosphere (of Sully jogging, schmoozing at Irish bars, gazing out a skyscraper window) is pungent. With efficiency, Eastwood sketches out a vision of a whole moving and moved city, united in its concern for the passengers on board another airline disaster in the works. The most precious scene of the film, acting-wise, takes place at a midnight-hour Irish pub, where blue-collar whites celebrate the end of the working day with drinks and telly. Suddenly, Sully himself stages in from an impulsive jog. The bartender recognizes him, expresses his gratitude (as do the other three patrons), and goes on to demonstrate the new drink he invented that day in honor of him. (“It’s called The Sully! It’s a shot of Grey Goose and a splash of water.”) The backgrounded warmth of the patrons and bartender is impossible to resist. The background actors never overwhelm Tom Hanks’ big moment: The images of the day’s rescue on the bar’s TV trigger Sully’s final flashback — the post-crash evacuation. However, the actors also don’t entirely recede into the background like all the anonymous drones-in-suits in “Bridge of Spies.” Rather, they inform the staging, the space, the mise-en-scene. They dictate its boundaries. They, in the end, stick in the mind, as do the pained expressions of New Yorkers witnessing Sully’s plane collapse into the river in real time. In their open-mouthed horror, these onlookers express the pain of anybody with a heart and a family: “Oh God, not again … ”
I don’t think any other American film has more harrowingly captured the unease and anxiety of post-9/11 America than “Sully.” In key moments, Eastwood penetrates Sully’s mind. We see what Sully sees: PTSD-induced hallucinations of the Hudson landing gone wrong, ending in a 9/11-style catastrophe among the skyscrapers of Manhattan. Eastwood gets us to understand the pressures of 9/11 first-responders (firefighters, ambulance drivers, paramedics) when people later came up to them and thanked them for their service. An undue burden is subtly placed on their shoulders: “I could have done more. I don’t deserve to be called the sole hero. Something could have been prevented.” In Sullenberger’s case, he thinks all this, as well as another obsessive, lingering question: “But what if … ?”
Ol’ Clint the Coot is complicit in fancifying, simplifying and glorifying the story of Sully with his cool-kick IMAX imagery. But he also seems like the perfect man for the job. A shaky cam freak like P. Greengrass (“United 93”) would have sensationalized the hell out of the crash, making up needless backstories and fiddling even further with the truth, all for the purpose of an aesthetically questionable thriller. Thus, it would have cheapened the lives of the victims (or, in this miraculous case, survivors), like Greengrass’ exploitation of the harrowing United 93 tragedy. Likewise, a big-hearted lug like Spielberg would have made the story too black-or-white. It would have been a yarn about honorable heroics done because “ya had to,” without much bite or contemplation. Somehow, “Sully” escapes all this by not being pretty in any conventional sense. It has some crummy cutting, simple compositions (almost Cassavetes-like, to the point of amateurishness) and flat-footed dialogue. But it works best that sloppy way.
I also love how upfront Clint is about the mythologization of Sully. At this point, Chesley Sullenberger’s story and the Miracle of the Hudson are out of his hands. They were out the moment he stepped out of his submerged plane and into the icy January river. It’s now quickly becoming a “Gather ‘round, kids!” folk tale, a legend that tells us something crucial about who we are as humans. It is like other interesting folk-tale biopics of recent memory: Florence Foster Jenkins (“They may say I can’t sing; no one can say that I didn’t try”), Joy Mangano (female gaming a patriarchal capitalist system for her own benefit), the Zuckster. “Sully” joins their ranks, crucially questioning the process by which we install and preserve an American folk hero.
Perhaps Sully seems like too much of a perfect person (my biggest complaint about the film). What is there, beneath the so-called heroics and the silver-plated sheath? Hanks’ mouth is pursed; it doesn’t give any clues. For every Miracle, there must be an Angel. Everyone in 2009 seemed content to credit Sully as this miracle’s angel and call it a day. But as Eastwood’s floating camera indicates, there was an ever bigger “other presence” hovering over the Hudson that January morning. Was it some spiritual force? Was it dumb luck? Fate? Eastwood doesn’t say. Hanks’ Sully doesn’t know what to say. Like a Robert Bresson character (Wiazemsky as Marie the donkey-girl, perhaps?), he just keeps that infernal look on his face: blankness, inner thought, zen. The words contain the man:
“I was just doing my duty.”
Contact Carlos Valladares at cvall96 ‘at’ stanford.edu.