American Psychic Wounds: Clint Eastwood’s Sully

Aaron Eckhart and Tom Hanks in Sully (Warner Bros.)
A film about post-9/11 heroism, and a documentary on hipster pathology

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.

It’s impossible to watch the opening scene of an airplane gliding above Manhattan, into the skyscraper canyons, then crashing into and crumbling the standing edifices, without being reminded of the Twin Towers attack. This moment is Sullenberger’s personal nightmare, but it evokes more than Flight 1549; seeing the immense scale of the plane against the New York skyline is authentically unnerving. The image of modern technology gone askew in blue-sky serenity haunts the American imagination and goes to the heart of the Millennial sense of vulnerability. I found this sequence (and later recreations in the film) overpowering — not just for the immaculate clarity of the IMAX imagery but for the details that the context raises about flight, terror, fate, and catastrophe that no other post-9/11 movie has directly confronted.

Eastwood and cinematographer Tom Stern have never before shown such limpid vision. The calm certainty of the imagery acknowledges horror that lingers in the American unconscious. Robert Zemeckis betrayed that fact in his airplane movie Flight and his Twin Towers film The Walk, both trashy. Even Paul Greengrass’ now forgotten United 93 (about the 9/11 hijacking headed for the Pentagon that crashed in Shanksville, Penn.) trivialized the experience in a hackneyed pretense of commemoration. 

Sully, with its melancholy undercurrent, strikes a necessary balance between dread and characterizing Sullenberg and co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) and others in the flight crew as credible, conscientious people. This is the most affecting portrait of American working status since Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center. These faces are believably unglamorous yet the actors convey convincing blue- and white-collar normalcy. Hanks is in a different “heroic” mode than he’s played before, capturing the real Sullenberger’s suppressed egotism. This difficult trait gives distinction to Eastwood’s class-based survey that includes the proficient ferry crews and scuba cops who came to Flight 1549’s rescue and the NTSB’s bureaucratic hostility (note how Anna Gunn as a Board adjudicator minimally conveys more credible career struggle than in all of her lame feminist vehicle Equity). There’s a folkloric quality here that, upon reflection of 9/11, is a moving reminder of human decency. It’s better than the mainstream media’s reflexive term “heroism.” 

Aware of the crisis of heroism — the trait now lost in political partisanship — Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki are careful not to misuse it. They avoid it. Instead, they connect its falsification to the media’s distortion of human values. If TV doyenne Katie Couric was an actress, her appearance here as herself might be as impressive as that schizophrenic cut from Sally Field’s anguish-to-cordiality in Spielberg’s Lincoln. Couric personifies the media’s disingenuousness. Her duplicitous cameo is not an apology, just another vain opportunity — whether she realized it, or Eastwood beguiled her, we see the repugnant truth. The immediacy of this insight is as impressive as the expertly handled rescue sequence. At its best, Sully is a moving, amazing film.

Author: The JT Leroy Story is misnamed. Its title should be “Fraud.” At the turn of the millennium, Brooklyn-based writer Laura Albert conned the cultural and journalistic establishment by posing as a victim of sexual abuse and a hipster literary naif — including a flirty misrepresentation of gender transition — in order to appeal to the sentimentality of the hipster cognoscenti. This documentary by Jeff Feuerzeig keeps the deceit going by treating Albert as a celebrity facing the camera and presenting her out-of-date, punk-and-hooker-outfitted self. 

Albert’s not the only prankster; Feuerzeig helps recall her scandal without any appropriate sense of truth. Feuerzeig parades the sycophantic slags of the print, television and film industries who depend upon frauds like Albert to flatter their own sense of relevance. They’re all phonies. Still referring to Jean Genet, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs merely shows that how little culture vultures know about art, transgression or authenticity. The celebrity line-up includes Tom Waits, Dennis Cooper, the late Lou Reed, Billy Corgan, Courtney Love, Bono, Asia Argento, Harvey Weinstein, Eddie Vedder, Michael Moore — all a confederacy of the dunced.

This is the most infuriating documentary since Capturing the Friedmans. It shares the same moral blindness and prurience disguised as exposé. Albert is an unsavory — in fact, skeevy — version of Rigoberta Menchú, the Guatemalan fraud who won the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize by presenting herself as a Third World victim of imperialism. “JT LeRoy” flaunted the imperialism of victimhood. The name came from Albert’s various personal-journal (and maybe psychotic) aliases, while the public role was performed by her sister-in-law. She manipulated the sexual dysfunction that the mainstream media indulge almost as much as they patronize the Third World poor. (Albert became part of filmmaker Gus Van Sant’s coterie and was on hand at the Cannes Film Festival when Elephant, his film about the Columbine school rampage, won the Palme d’Or as the latest expression of Cannes’s longstanding anti-Americanism.)

The closest Feuerzeig comes to truth is the pathetic advice of Smashing Pumpkins singer Corgan: “You can’t stand up in a tsunami.” This documentary itself is a whirlwind of deceit, switching tenses at will, as if to legitimize Albert’s particular delusions, still enjoying her game and the cultural myths to which liberals are susceptible. Feuerzeig and Albert haven’t created a real-life Zelig, and they fail to examine the depths of personal and social delusion, unlike Penny Lane’s in her recent hoaxes doc, Nuts! Having embarrassed the unembarrasable media, Albert offers an intriguing excuse: “My dream bordered on reality based on a dream.” This doc could also be titled “Sociopath.”

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.


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