Each time Clint Eastwood makes a movie, it’s as though he were presenting a fresh challenge to himself. If you look at his body of work behind the camera, you’d see a filmmaker who cannot be tied down to one type of movie, is constantly taking risks and humbly adapts his approach to each project he takes on. Like John Huston before him, Eastwood is a fearless, old fashioned director with a clean-cut mode of storytelling and a restless manner of choosing films that are intriguingly unconnected.
There are thematic threads to all of Eastwood’s work but if one were to binge watch a stack of his movies, you might be astonished to realize they were all made by the same man. Seriously, check out Unforgiven, Play Misty For Me, Letters From Iwo Jima, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, A Perfect World and Hereafter. They’re all great and totally different. Eastwood’s most recent works include the failed musical Jersey Boys and the controversial blockbuster American Sniper. The best directors, ranging from Martin Scorsese to Robert Altman, share this quality: their wide ranging love of varying film genres results in a playful body of work. It’s a gift for us to see something we didn’t expect from an artist we grew up watching.
In Sully, Tom Hanks plays US Airways pilot Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who we meet after his legendary 2009 emergency landing on the Hudson River left him shell-shocked. Through subtle use of sound and especially clever cinematography, we see how Sully is an introvert whose world seems to be surrounding him. Unwanted attention from the press and an investigation into his capabilities as a pilot haunt him. His wife (Laura Linney) struggles to keep it together at home, while his co-pilot (Aaron Eckhart, outstanding) is the only witness to Sullenberger’s remarkable performance in the cockpit.
Hanks’ portrait of a reserved, private man suddenly placed in the center of a media blitz and having to defend his outstanding service record, is beautifully understated. The film, and Hanks’ approach to the role, is similar to Hanks’ recent triumph in Captain Phillips. In both cases, the recreation of the central event is astonishing but it’s the lead actor’s decision to give a quiet, lived-in portrayal of a real survivor that gives this its center.
If there’s a single filmmaker who clearly inspired Eastwood while making this, it’s Frank Capra. From the cheerful supporting characters to the quasi-courtroom climax, there’s an old fashioned quality to the storytelling. Eastwood’s direction is exceptional as always but it’s refreshing to see a film present its story with such no-nonsense clarity and top notch production values (the cinematography and visual effects ought to be award contenders). Eastwood’s only indulgence is an amusing shot of Sullenberger jogging past a NYC movie theater playing Gran Torino.
We see the Hudson landing from different perspectives and, in every instance, the event is gripping and vivid. Hanks’ big monologue during the climactic hearing manages to be his big showcase and still not come across like an actor’s grandstanding. Eastwood found the perfect collaborator in Hanks, as both bring their expected professionalism, experience and understanding of human nature to their efforts.
The screenplay establishes a theme of Sullenberger’s “humanity” and the human element in his piloting being the greatest aspect (and not the robotics of the aircraft) that saved his plane. It’s this quality, the ability to look inward and not make this a gaudy spectacle, that also makes Eastwood’s film soar. While it falls a bit short of his previous film, with overly broad supporting roles and at least one dream sequence too many, Eastwood has once again delivered an astonishing film. Not bad for an 86-year old.