Magazine | March 19, 2018, Issue

Excellent Eastwood

(Roman Genn)
A great director gives American heroes their due.

‘Old soldiers never die; they just fade away,” said General Douglas MacArthur, but what about old directors? In the fall of 2016, as the presidential contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton raged on, I caught up with the latest film of one such director, a man who at that point had been perched behind cameras for some 45 years: Clint Eastwood.

On the strength of such spare, sinewy masterpieces of action as Pale Rider (1985), Unforgiven (1992), and A Perfect World (1993) — as well as the gentle, good-natured character studies in Breezy (1973) and Bronco Billy (1980) — Clint Eastwood was, I had long thought, one of America’s finest directors. In recent years, however, I feared that he had begun to slip ever so slightly: Changeling (2008) was too dependent on the dubious talent of Angelina Jolie, and J. Edgar (2011) too dependent on the old-age makeup layered on Leonardo DiCaprio.

So I waited a while to catch Sully (2016), the director’s docudrama-like treatment of actions taken by pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) to bring about the safe landing of US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River in 2009. By the time I saw it, the drama had already been in theaters for about a month, earning more than $100 million at the box office. The film’s subject matter also gave me pause: Was a crash landing that unfolded over just 208 seconds sufficient to support an entire film that needed a beginning, middle, and end?

Yet, in the theater that day, I came to the conclusion that the audiences who had flocked to Sully were not simply responding to the re-creation of a single, well-publicized incident — not even one as harrowing as the “miracle on the Hudson” engineered by Sullenberger. No, Eastwood had made a film that touched deeper, more primal nerves. Far from slipping — let alone fading away — Eastwood had come up with a bold final act. Going against the prevailing winds in Hollywood, Sully was the second of three consecutive Eastwood films — it was preceded by 2014’s American Sniper and followed by the recently released The 15:17 to Paris — whose raison d’être was to celebrate the guts and glory of real-life Americans.

In making Sully, Eastwood sought neither spectacle nor shock; after all, nearly everyone already knew the outcome of the midair collision with birds that necessitated the plane’s water landing. What’s more, Eastwood chose to replay the incident, in full and in part, so often that it ultimately lost its teeth. What, then, was his aim? In the end, the near-disaster, and Sullenberger’s response to it, allowed Eastwood to highlight the qualities he admires most: grit, humility, and competency.

On those counts, Eastwood finds much to commend not only in Sullenberger and his stolid, sturdy co-pilot Jeffrey Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) but also in the air-traffic controller who, though unaware of Sullenberger’s intentions, reacted with level-headed professionalism. The selfless first responders who sprang into action (an eagle-eyed ferry captain and daring scuba divers from the NYPD) also shine under Eastwood’s admiring eye.

Eastwood uses the investigation undertaken by the National Transportation Safety Board to contrast the real-world toughness of Sullenberger and Skiles with the armchair quarterbacking of their inferiors. The film depicts the cool, calm camaraderie between Sullenberger and Skiles, who navigate their plane’s unplanned descent in the same even-tempered tones they used moments earlier to discuss the merits of porterhouse versus rib-eye steaks. “I’m just so damn proud,” Sullenberger says to Skiles after listening to the cockpit voice recording toward the end of the investigation. “And you — you were right there.”

There was something striking, too, about seeing Sully in the middle of the 2016 election. Sully’s commemoration of the heroic doings of honest, honorable Americans gelled with then-candidate Trump’s praise of what he called — as he did in his address to the Republican National Convention — “our law-enforcement officials” or “our great veterans.” (In a conversation with Hugh Hewitt, Victor Davis Hanson described Trump as unique among Republican candidates for adopting “the first-person plural possessive ‘our’ — ‘our miners,’ ‘our farmers,’ ‘our workers,’ ‘our vets,’ ‘our soldiers.’”) It seemed to me that Eastwood and Trump were swimming in the same waters, and that if there was an audience for a film such as Sully — especially in a year when most box-office champs were either infantile comic-book adaptations (Captain America: Civil War) or cornball children’s fare (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) — there just might be voter demand for Trump.

It was not the first time that Eastwood had found himself in tune with cultural currents. In his star turn as the title cop in Dirty Harry (1971), Eastwood made a decisive stand for the law and order promised by the Nixon administration. According to Peter Bogdanovich, the film was so firmly pro-police that its director, the great Don Siegel, was anxious that “all his liberal friends would disown him because of the picture’s persuasive portrayal of how difficult it has become for police to apprehend criminals.”

Yet the film proved resonant enough to result in five sequels, including Sudden Impact (1983). In that brilliant, Eastwood-directed film, Dirty Harry halts a hold-up with the assistance of his friends — “Smith and Wesson,” as he refers to them — and utters a line so memorable it was later picked up by Ronald Reagan: “Go ahead, make my day.” The certitude of the line — and the resolution in Eastwood’s delivery — is what stands out. Confident that he is in the right, and that no one in the room is tougher, Harry enjoys calling the bad guy’s bluff. In later films, the filmmaker continued to flex the same sort of muscular moralism, expressing outrage at a fictitious philandering commander in chief in Absolute Power (1997) and sympathy for the lonely plight of the falsely accused in the superb True Crime (1999).

Yet Eastwood has never seemed more responsive to the tastes and views of his audience than in his recent films: American Sniper, about Navy SEAL Chris Kyle; Sully; and The 15:17 to Paris, about the three Americans — two of whom served in the military — who stopped a terrorist attack on a train from Amsterdam to Paris in August 2015. The link between the films is obvious: Each is based on widely admired real-life figures. But Eastwood, speaking recently to the New York Times, denied that the overlaps were intentional. “You think about enough things in this life,” he said. “When you make a movie, you let things fall where they may.” Yet the connection is clear; film fans would have to go back to the late-career celebratory biopics by John Ford — The Long Gray Line (1955), about Army sergeant Martin Maher, or The Wings of Eagles (1957), about naval aviator Frank “Spig” Wead — to find a comparable series of films.

What’s more, Eastwood surely recognizes that his recent efforts have upset his standing among many in the critical and prize-bestowing establishment. Positive portrayals of God-fearing, country-serving citizens are not exactly their thing. To be sure, American Sniper was received enthusiastically by critics, but it pocketed just one Oscar, despite its six nominations. By contrast, Eastwood’s Mystic River (2003) and Million Dollar Baby (2005) — great films, no doubt — received six Oscars between them in a three-year window. Sully managed a solitary Oscar nomination, while The 15:17 to Paris has received mostly dismissive reviews. Yet let us not feel too sorry for Eastwood, who has bypassed the establishment to find an audience receptive to these films: American Sniper had box-office receipts totaling more than $547 million worldwide, and The 15:17 to Paris will probably emerge as a modest commercial success.

In fact, The 15:17 to Paris is Eastwood’s most accomplished and intriguing film since Flags of Our Fathers (2006), a poetic, underrated examination of the brouhaha that engulfed the soldiers whose likenesses were captured (or not) in Joe Rosenthal’s classic photograph Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima. Like the earlier film, The 15:17 to Paris casts its lot not with generals but with the guys in the trenches — in this case, Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler (who play themselves as adults). The trio grew close as youngsters, all enamored of the armed forces, in Sacramento, Calif. Stone later entered the Air Force, and Skarlatos, the National Guard. The film tracks the three from childhood through their summer 2015 European vacation, which culminates in their decision to extend their trip to Paris — unaware that they would encounter, and thwart, an armed terrorist with deadly intentions.

In The Hollywood Reporter, critic Todd McCarthy expressed the same reservations about The 15:17 to Paris that I had about Sully: “Is there a full-length feature film in the dramatic but blink-and-it’s-over incident,” the critic asked, before answering his own question. The movie is mostly composed, he says, “unfortunately . . . of banal, drama-free, quotidian scenes that merely reinforce the men’s status as regular Joes who, one day, had the opportunity for greatness thrust upon them.”

Yet, to my thinking, the many scenes of the pals ribbing one another, flirting with pretty girls, or arguing over selfie sticks not only are appealing (like the jocular esprit de corps so often found in the films of Howard Hawks), but they also emphasize a far darker point: the way terrorism infringes on the everyday. The audience watching the film may know that Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler are nearing a fateful confrontation, but the men themselves — like the other passengers on the train that day — have no warning until it happens.

Much has been made of Eastwood’s roll of the dice in casting Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler, but the decision turns out to be no mere stunt. According to the New York Times, the men kiddingly proposed the casting of Chris Hemsworth, Zac Efron, and Michael B. Jordan, but how easily a lesser director could have selected such actors — and what a mistake it would have been. In eschewing such performers, Eastwood is tacitly acknowledging the limitations of young male talent in Hollywood. Simply put, are there very many movie stars between the ages of 20 and 30 who could credibly re-create the moment when Stone places the terrorist in a chokehold?

On the heels of American Sniper and Sully — not to mention his amusing appearance at the 2012 Republican National Convention — Eastwood’s political positions are no secret, but in The 15:17 to Paris, the director speaks even more clearly than usual. Early in the film, a concerned teacher meets with the single mothers of Stone and Skarlatos, whose sins amount to little more than staring out the window during class. When the teacher makes an amateur diagnosis of attention-deficit disorder, suggests medication for both kids, and warns of the grim odds faced by single-parent children, you can practically see Eastwood’s off-camera eye-rolling. Spencer Stone’s mother is more explicit in her disagreement. “My God is bigger than your statistics,” she defiantly tells the teacher, in the latest instance of Eastwood’s recent, surprising interest in the eternal. (Recall Eastwood’s quietly haunting 2010 film Hereafter, with its gently, almost cautiously expressed openness to the prospect of life after death.)

The 15:17 to Paris is a film in which prayer is spoken of openly and military service is presented as a viable career choice; it’s also a film that delights in proving wrong the many authority figures who regard young Spencer, Alek, and Anthony as troublemakers or losers. A gym teacher reprimands Anthony for exclaiming “What the hell?” — not exactly the sort of language likely to shock the man who played Dirty Harry — while an Air Force instructor admonishes Stone for preparing to confront a reported active shooter instead of hiding beneath his desk. How severely these three were underestimated.

More notably, Dorothy Blyskal’s elegantly constructed screenplay is preoccupied with how easy it would have been for the men not to have been on that train that day. What if their mothers had forbidden the boys to play “war”? What if Stone had remained in his pre–Air Force position as a worker at a Jamba Juice? What if Sadler had been unable to join Stone and Skarlatos on the trip to Europe? Who else, the film asks, would have stopped the man on the train? Human life was spared because a few good Americans showed up on cue — that’s all there is to it.

From Dirty Harry to Bronco Billy, Eastwood has breathed life into more than one make-believe hero. Now, ahead of his 88th birthday, the director has turned to crafting aesthetically lean, emotionally straightforward films about the authentic heroes of our own age — and, in his most recent, put the real men in the very roles fate assigned them. How many modern artists have devoted themselves to expressing feelings of national pride? The list is not especially long — maybe Norman Rockwell, with the Four Freedoms series of paintings, or Morton Gould, with the musical composition “American Salute,” and Michael Cimino, with the “God Bless America” finale of The Deer Hunter — but let us now add Eastwood to it.

Peter Tonguette — Mr. Tonguette has written about the arts for The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, and The New Criterion. He is the editor of the book Peter Bogdanovich: Interviews.

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