In Clint Eastwood’s Sully, the title refers to more than just a man’s nickname; it’s a term for the disparagement and distrust that Americans now regularly inflict on each other. A movie about the emergency landing of a US Airways passenger jet on New York’s Hudson River by pilot Chesley Sullenberger in 2009 could have been merely banal, like a fact-based, action-oriented remake of those 1970s Airport disaster movies.
By focusing on doubts that media and the National Transportation Safety Board had about Sullenberger’s spontaneous decisions (his professional’s instincts saved “155 souls”), Eastwood makes the film an extraordinary cultural profile. In the course of hasty efforts to dishonor-then-acclaim Sullenberger, Eastwood gets political in his hard-to-fathom way. He dramatizes the disharmony that has recently become common in media-driven life.
After the forced water landing, Sullenberger runs into the rampant distrust in our Millennial culture — it’s worse than the ignominy Gary Cooper faced in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. This new, politically correct Puritanism reveals itself in the urge to punish, which is the flip side of fawning over celebrities, and Sully connects this observation to our country’s psychic injury. Sully is timely. It’s being released just before the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, a New York event that still reverberates. But Eastwood’s concept also responds to the treacherous frenzy that greeted his previous movie, American Sniper (a biography of another doubted American, Navy SEAL marksman Chris Kyle), which became the focus of partisan attack and acclaim: a symptom of today’s fractured culture.
Instead of mending fences in Sully, Eastwood works through both awe and disbelief, recognizing underappreciated professionalism — a reminder of American exceptionalism — by looking back at “the miracle on the Hudson” with a sobering, unsentimental sense of recent history.
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