The Subtly Irresponsible Politics of ‘Sully’

We’ve all been there. We’ve been in a workplace situation – from art to retail – wherein we’ll find ourselves faced with an unprecedented situation. A customer will come in with a question you didn’t prepare for, or something will break that has always – always – held together. You will, in that moment, be required to make a split command decision. You will have to overlook all the by-the-book regulations previously taught you, and rely on gut instinct. In that moment, you cool yourself, take a breath, and, God willing, take reigns of the situation.

Then, once the crisis has been managed, and you somehow held the situation together, your manager will approach you and ask for an explanation. You will have to explain why you wandered from protocol. And, even in the best of situations, you will likely face a rigorous appraisal. And often – and here’s the real kicker – you will be lambasted for your breaking of the rules. You may even be punished. You made a good decision in the moment, you took control of the situation, but you had to bend the rules to do it. It’s the latter part that gets you in trouble. Naturally, you’re frustrated.

Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

Clint Eastwood’s Sully, currently in theaters, is very much about this phenomenon. In the film, Tom Hanks plays the real-life pilot, Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger who, in January 2009, after 42 years experience as a pilot, experienced a double engine failure at an incredibly low altitude while taking off from LaGuardia. He was instructed to go back to the airport, but, in a last-minute command decision, elected instead to land the plane on the Hudson river. All the passengers survived (a scant rarity in water landings), but the plane was lost.

Sully was hailed as a hero by the media, and New York was grateful to hear a news story of an airplane disaster that ended well; Don’t think it’s a coincidence that Sully is being released on the 15th anniversary of 9/11. Sully also underwent a great deal of scrutiny by the airline after the fact, having to face the possibility that he made a bad decision. Could Sully have returned to the airport after all? Did he do a risky thing when he didn’t have to? The passengers all survived, but maybe their lives didn’t need to be put in danger at all.

The first half of Sully seems to be all doubt. There are a few flashbacks scenes, showing a young Sully as a hotshot young pilot, taking risks and being daring. Even though he’s a commercial airline pilot, there is a lingering sense of machismo about Sully. He is an old-world machine operator. A man’s man. He may not be virile or manly, but he is an expert in a manly thing: Big, loud planes. His choice to land a plane on the Hudson was risky, and the risk made it, it must be said, kind of cool.

Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

Eastwood’s version of Sully depicts him as a man who seems befuddled by the loss of his macho resolve. In Sully’s mind, he made the right decision, but the world is pillorying him for taking too big a risk. Has the world changed, or has Sully? Where is the place for old men who may be losing their faculties? And what does it mean to lose one’s machismo, however slight? For stretches of Sully, Eastwood seems to be thematically evoking the work of Sam Peckinpah, a filmmaker whose constant thesis was that of destructive machismo. In Peckinpah films, the male characters were only kept alive by innate drives to be archetypal violent males, free of the fetters of decency. Peckinpah also pointed out that the same heroic machismo that kept his protagonists alive was the very thing that was going to destroy them. Manliness is all there is, and it will definitely kill you.

Sully, for its first half, is pointed in that direction. But, those who know history, know that Sully will not end with ruination. In the film, Capt. Sullenberger stands up in front of a committee of mewling government agents, and gives a speech about the power of real-life decision-making, and proves that he made the right decision by flummoxing the simulations that would incriminate him.

I understand Eastwood’s point: He – who turned 86 in may – is telling yet another “old guys still got it” story. He wants to prove to the world that elderly professionals may be more capable than their younger counterparts give them credit for. Eastwood, famously conservative, wants to tout the strengths of old-guard, we-got-this parental power of his generation. The more recent culture of liberal caution is unduly targeting people like Sully, people who are – in Eastwood’s vision – true heroes.

Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

And while I don’t want to belittle Capt. Sullenberger’s illustrious career, or the hundreds of life-saving decisions he’s made over the course of that career, Eastwood’s story of him smacks – beneath – of a type of political irresponsibility. Perhaps knowing Eastwood’s politics ahead of time colored my vision of Sully – a finely made drama of modest proportions – but I can’t help but see Sully as a political screed in favor of the type of irresponsible personal politics encountered in films like Atlas Shrugged.

The government officials in Sully are all depicted as brow-furrowed, scowling, mistrusting attackers, who want to tear down a man who is clearly a hero. They seem to have an agenda with Sullenberger, and that agenda involves tearing down the old guard and assembling a namby-pamby world of over-sensitivity. They are depicted very much the same as the politicians in Atlas Shrugged: as conceptual villains. Sully is an infinitely more capable and well-thought-out movie, of course, but the notions are similar.

The way that the government tried to railroad Sullenberger is, by the way, the most notable way in which the film differs from the true story. There was an investigation, but Sullenberger was not hounded the way he was in the film. In a piece written for The Guardian, the investigators even came out in objection to the way they were portrayed.

Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

The subtle message of Sully, then, is that the government is not to be trusted and that older – and it should perhaps be said, white male – experts should still be in charge. It’s conservative film about Small Government. This is, of course, a view most conservatives share. But Sully is irresponsible about it, because it thinks that putting the passengers in danger was an acceptable risk merely to prove that the exceptional Sully “still had it.”

Sully is ultimately a watchable and emotional film, and Tom Hanks gives yet another excellent performance. It’s also impressive that Eastwood, at age 86, has managed to become more lively and humane a director as he’s aged. But his politics may be unduly coloring his films, and it’s becoming distracting.

Top Image: Warner Bros.

Witney Seibold is a longtime contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon. He also contributes to Legion of Leia and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.