by Nandia Foteini Vlachou
Coming off from an impressive series of roles, following Greengrass’s Captain Phillips and Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, Tom Hanks plays Sully, the title character, in Clint Eastwood’s latest film. Hanks brings to his portrayal of the pilot, who successfully landed an Airbus A320-214 in the Hudson river in January 2009, a remarkable subtlety, with frowns and restrained gestures that convey the inner world of a man who is suddenly thrust in the center of a nation’s attention. This is a man not used of getting noticed for simply doing his job, and doing it well. In the scene where Sully is interviewed by Katie Couric, Hanks communicates the character’s tension and uncomfortableness, with the way he places his hands on his knees, facing inwards, and his stiff upper body. It is a fleeting moment, but one gets a vivid impression of Hanks’s tremendous and understated experience as an actor. His body language is more eloquent than words.
Hanks’s performance is not the only thing standing out however. Terrifically shot and directed, the film handles suspense masterfully even though the final outcome is well known (a feat also accomplished by Affleck’s Argo some years ago). There are some false notes, but they are few and far between: the character of Charles Porter who comes across more of a villain than need be (the committee analyzing the proceedings was, after all, also doing their job); and the end title scene with the real Sully greeting the survivors, reminiscent (although in a lesser extent) of the last scene from Schindler’s List, which I personally loathe for its sentimentality.
What is perhaps more interesting in Sully (and Ilias Dimopoulos has offered, in Greek, an insightful reading of the film as an allegory of artistic creation), is how it fits in Eastwood’s cinematic universe. For a man of few words, Eastwood has been quite explicit about his artistic motives and themes through his films. His latest is neither, simply, a biopic (portrait of an event would be a more accurate description, despite the film bearing the name of its main character), nor, simply, a drama. It is also a manifesto of sorts. Unlike White Hunter Black Heart, which can rightly be considered his artistic manifesto, Sully is a manifesto of morality, and that is truly not as tedious or didactic as it sounds. Eastwood uses the story to talk about some of the central themes in his work, like the nature of the hero (here benefiting by the most un-heroic hero of American cinema) and individual sense of duty. The extra-filmic narrative of Eastwood’s political leanings (which he has never concealed) is not much relevant here. The film’s morality (and morale) is that what matters are the people who know how to get the job done, and who get it done with no fuss and without seeking attention or compensation for merely doing what they do. It propounds a certain work ethic that is certainly old-fashioned, but not necessarily conservative – although Eastwood has remained a fierce individualist throughout his career, with an unwavering faith in the power of work to advance society.
This is why the alternative title of the film in some countries (Portugal included), Miracle on Hudson River, is misleading: although the event did get immortalized in popular culture and conscience as a miracle, there is nothing miraculous about what happened, the film seems to argue – just a man who, in a matter of seconds, took the right decision, as well as the burden of responsibility for it. Even so, Eastwood, through his direction and the repeated sequences of the event from different viewpoints, manages to transmit how incredible it all was. Perhaps a sense of marvel is still needed in a world where people perform their duty, even if they do it exceptionally well.