Glug Glug

Sully, a film by Clint Eastwood.  With Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney.

I’ve always thought of Clint Eastwood as the King of the Grade B movie.  One sure sign of Grade B is prolonged footage of a car driving somewhere, and there was ample such footage in Play Misty for Me, the first movie he directed.  There was a scene in A Perfect World where a trailer supposedly stops on a dime, and when the cast created this scene they were obviously just standing on a still set, pretending to stop suddenly, the way a bunch of kids might pretend in a school play.  It is of course characteristic of Grade B work that a hero is all powerful and all-knowing and saves the day, a situation that occurs throughout Clint’s work.  There was the obvious and rather moronic Christ symbolism (No, Clint!  Don’t do it!) at the end of Gran Torino.  In Sully there are scenes where the title character is staring at something, like a newscast, or staring out a window, and he suddenly has a horrible vision, or a flashback of what really happened, and there’s a scene at the beginning where we’re seeing a horrible disaster, a plane crashing into buildings in downtown Manhattan, and suddenly Sully sits up in bed gasping.  Classic Grade B.

And yet, just as a certain kind of pulp novel—like those of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett—achieve literary status and wind up in the Library of America, certain Grade B movies transcend their genres and become works of art, or at least great movies.  The Unforgiven is one.  Million Dollar Baby is another.[1]  I actually think that much of Eastwood’s recent work, as far back as Mystic River, is of a high quality.  I’m also intrigued by the direction his recent movies have taken, the change of heart that the Dirty Harry type character went through in Gran Torino and the bizarre but compelling speculation on death in Hereafter[2].  And despite the scene where the trailer stops, or perhaps partly because of it, A Perfect World is one of my favorite movies of all time, by anybody.  The way Kevin Costner interacted with that kid, the way he ferociously attacked anyone who would abuse a child.  And the movie had any number of great lines.  “Sure I love her.  Of course I love her.  I kissed her butt, didn’t I?”

I’m not fond of his politics (though Wikepedia suggests they’re not as bad as I’d thought), and his personal life sounds rather sketchy, but the man, astonishingly, is 86 years old and still doing interesting work.  And it’s probably unfair to mention the trailers in a review—they’re totally irrelevant—but as I looked at one trailer after another about a bunch of robots, or some end of the world scenario, or a Western with special effects that made it look like Star Wars, a simple grade B movie, with straightforward storytelling, about a man who wasn’t a hero—certainly not a Clint Eastwood type hero—but became one because of what he did looked pretty good.  Clint delivered.  It was a movie about today that was like a movie from the old days.

This is one of those movies where you know exactly what is going to happen and it’s still suspenseful and astonishing.  Part of the reason is that we’re watching one of our greatest fears—this plane is going down!—but it’s also true that the man who directed that phony scene of the trailer stopping shows us a most realistic scene of a plane landing on the Hudson River, the aisles filling with water, people scrambling out.  We know they get out safely.  It’s still terrifying.

Tom Hanks plays Sully as a hero so ordinary that he has almost no personality.  He’s not a wealthy man, of course, and his fear is that in the investigation he will be disgraced and lose his job and—as a man who isn’t young—won’t know what to do next, or how to make a living.  His wife (Laura Linney) obviously has the same fears, though she’s overjoyed that her husband survived.

The real suspense of the movie involves the question of whether he could have turned back and made it to LaGuardia.  In that sense it’s a courtroom drama; we see Sully being questioned in a small room by a bunch of bean counters, then before a large group at a kind of trial.  The National Transportation Safety Board says that they weren’t as hostile to Sully as the movie makes them out to be, and that may be true.  It may also be true—as a friend pointed out to me—that the investigation might have looked more threatening from Sully’s point of view than from theirs.  In the movie they’re ready to hang him out to dry on the basis of computer and pilot simulations, but he insists that the human element can’t be captured by a simulation.  We know all along the man will wind up a hero.  This is a feel-good movie from the get go.

Aaron Eckhart is especially good as Sully’s co-pilot.  The entire cast does well with their roles, and we notice some character actors we haven’t seen for a while.  I especially liked the chunky woman who grabbed a life preserver in one arm—didn’t even bother to put it on—and took a nose dive into the Hudson.  It would only have been better if she’d swum backstroke to the shore.

The plane just kept floating.  Everybody survived.  Even in a movie, even when you remember the footage from the newscasts, it’s astonishing to watch.

[1] I have great affection for that movie because it is the last one my mother ever saw in a theater.  I was visiting her and my stepfather in Sarasota, and we decided to go to a movie on a rainy afternoon, and she wanted to go way ahead—we were there at least a half hour ahead—but the theater was packed, oldsters waiting for the show to start.  I had already seen the movie once and told her it was hard to take, but she didn’t care; she wanted to see the Academy Award winner.  She and my stepfather both took short snoozes in the course of the film, but I’m sure most of the audience did.  And at the end she said, “Wow.”

[2] An interesting side note: Eastwood has practiced Transcendental Meditation for over 40 years.