A story as well-known as Chesley Sullenberger’s is difficult to approach: How do you make a movie about a man who did his job well and subsequently became a national hero? When the script for “Untitled Story About Captain Sullenberger and the Hudson River” came across Clint Eastwood’s desk, the director claims that he initially balked at the idea. But what surprised the veteran director about the script was how much of the behind-the-scenes drama he hadn’t heard. “I didn’t know the investigative board was trying to paint the picture that he had done the wrong thing,” Eastwood told The Guardian. “They were kind of railroading him.”
There’s a reason why Eastwood hadn't heard that side of the story: It didn’t happen.
Stephen Cass, also writing for The Guardian, points out that these details are completely absent from the film’s source material. “Sully,” written by Todd Komarnicki (“Perfect Stranger”), is based on Jeffrey Zaslow’s “Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters,” a profile in courage about the man behind the “miracle” airplane landing.
Eastwood’s film, though, isn’t a biography but a tense courtroom drama, like “Inherit the Wind” but with a plane instead of a monkey.
The National Transportation Safety Board, led by Elizabeth Davis (Anna Gunn of “Breaking Bad”), questions Sullenberger’s methods: Why didn’t he turn back to LaGuardia or land at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey? Following a successful simulation, the NTSB claims that he could have made it to either location without incident. Should he be found guilty of recklessly endangering the lives of the “155 souls on board,” Sullenberger will lose his job and his pension, effectively ending his career. “Over 40 years in the air,” he tells his co-pilot, Jeffrey Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), “but in the end, I'm going to be judged on 208 seconds.”
Cass points out that Sullenberger’s own biography refers to federal investigators not as pencil-pushing bureaucrats but helpful and supportive. “[I]nvestigators determined that Jeff and I made appropriate choices at every step,” he writes.
The NTSB in “Sully” is discredited and embarrassed when it turns out that their simulations forgot to factor in one crucial detail: the human element. After Sullenberger lobbies to add 35 seconds to the simulation — to account for hesitation, while he and Skiles determined what course of action was best — the evidence vindicates him. Each simulation ends in disaster, crashing into the surroundings. These fiery explosions, as seen in a cartoonishly dated computer animation, mirror the PTSD terrors he’s been experiencing, as he imagines alternate, disastrous versions of what could have happened. In “Sully,” the real terror facing America is bureaucracy.
Eastwood’s film not only celebrates a conservative perspective, in which the wise judgment of individual actors outweighs an institutionalized system of checks and balances, but also speaks to who is allowed to stand in for American patriotism itself. Who is the “everyman?” Our collective hero, apparently, looks a lot like Chesley Sullenberger — white, heterosexual and male, someone who could be played by Gary Cooper, Jack Lemmon, or, well, Tom Hanks.
Sully’s story deserved to be told, but the telling is getting awfully familiar.
Tom Hanks is his own genre. You know his type of character by now: decent and hardworking, the fundamental embodiment of the American spirit. Playing the famed pilot who shepherded 155 passengers to safety when he made an emergency landing in the Hudson River in 2009, the 60-year-old actor relies on his preternatural likability to sell the role. If surveys commonly rank Tom Hanks as the most trusted actor in Hollywood, a walking Good Housekeeping seal of approval, he’s the closest thing we have to the kind of actor you would entrust with your life.
The word “everyman” is associated with Hanks more than any other actor of his generation. It’s an image he’s been cultivating since the early ’90s, when he traded in lightweight comedies like “Turner and Hooch” and “The Man with One Red Shoe” for more serious work. In “Forrest Gump,” Hanks became the symbol of a nation grappling with the violence of Vietnam and its aftermath. Forrest commonly finds himself at the center of history, even if he does not influence it. Hanks spent a whole decade playing heroes of various shapes and sizes after that: the romantic hero in “Sleepless in Seattle,” a dutiful army captain in “Saving Private Ryan,” and an imperiled astronaut in “Apollo 13.”
In this way, Hanks followed the career trajectory of James Stewart, a screwball comedy vet who frequently represented the common good. The Stewart character is both ordinary and exceptional. In a pivotal scene in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” his Jefferson Smith stands against political corruption, collapsing under the weight of his impassioned idealism. George Cukor cast Stewart as the audience stand-in for “The Philadelphia Story,” a cynical, blue-collar newspaper reporter who falls for an aristocratic dame (the ever-radiant Katharine Hepburn).
That film saw Cary Grant get the girl, and Stewart won the Oscar, his only statuette. The actor knew that his underdog status was part of his appeal. “I suppose people can relate to being me,’’ Stewart is said to have remarked, “while they dream about being John Wayne.’’
There’s no question that Tom Hanks is James Stewart’s heir apparent, so much so that Hanks played the male lead in a remake of “Shop Around the Corner,” the Ernst Lubitsch romantic comedy about love blossoming through anonymous correspondence. “You’ve Got Mail” trades snail mail for the online dating revolution. Joe (Hanks) finds that he can be more himself in his email exchanges with Kathleen (Meg Ryan), a woman he meets in an AOL chatroom, than he can with the women in his non-virtual life.
Stewart’s “everyman” status, though, has long been questioned, most notably by Slate’s David Haglund. To call Stewart a stand-in for the audience is to ignore the moral ambiguity underneath his persona—even early in his career. In 1936’s “After the Thin Man,” Stewart is not the suave detective trading barbs with his partner in crime (William Powell) but a ruthless killer. “Harvey,” a whimsical comedy about a man whose best friend is a giant bunny rabbit, seems to portray a man with a serious mental illness, even if Henry Koster’s film is unwilling to examine the story’s grim implications.
A pair of Hitchcock films shed new light on his persona, illuminating what was there all along. In “Rear Window” and “Vertigo,” Stewart portrays men who embody the director’s psychosexual desire for power and control, particularly over women. After being confined to a wheelchair, L.B. Jefferies inherits a pair of binoculars that make him into a casual voyeur, able to peer into the private lives of his neighbors. “Vertigo” takes these themes to even darker places. After witnessing a woman (Kim Novak) try to kill herself by throwing herself into the San Francisco bay, John Ferguson (Stewart) changes her out of her wet clothing while she’s unconscious. When she succeeds in taking her own life, he meets her double (also Novak) and tries to remake the woman into his departed’s image.
Hanks has never played a character as sneakily sinister as the agoraphobic control freak of Hitchcock’s enduring masterpiece, but if he’s seen as a Stewart-style everyman, that has more to do with how we define the “average Joe” than the similarities in their personas. “What they both are is affable, handsome-but-not-too-handsome heterosexual American white guys with middle class backgrounds and largely British ancestors who generally portray good guys in the movies,” Haglund writes.
There’s a reason that Hanks is associated with the phrase “everyman” more often than, say, Denzel Washington, Sandra Bullock, or Renée Zellweger, actors who frequently embody many of the same characteristics. Washington, just two years older than Hanks, portrays characters of extraordinary ordinariness in films like “Unstoppable” and “John Q,” while Zellweger and Bullock have made their careers on “girl next door” types.
What’s revolutionary about “Bridget Jones’s Diary” is how commonplace the title character’s struggles are: She smokes too much, drinks too much, and just wants to lose 20 pounds. Bridget’s problems, however, are not seen as universal because we do not allow them to be. The 2001 film, based on the Helen Fielding novel, is specifically about the pressures women face to live up to absurd expectations of personal and romantic fulfillment. When Bridget is the only single person at a dinner party filled with “smug marrieds,” she’s asked a question that hounds many women in their 30s: When do you plan to settle down? That question doesn’t have the same sting for men her age, who are viewed as swinging bachelors, not suspected spinsters.
The criticism of Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” illustrates what we mean when talk about universals. The 2014 masterpiece, which documents the adolescence of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) as a series of small yet profound moments, was praised for speaking to a collective experience of humanity. “The profuse pleasures of ‘Boyhood’ spring not from amazement but from recognition,” wrote the New Yorker’s Richard Brody, “from saying, Yes, that’s true, and that feels right, or that’s how it was for me, too.”
But as Teo Bugbee pointed out in The Daily Beast, films centered on women and black characters are rarely allowed to have such singular resonance. Prior to the debut of Linklater’s film, there was “American Promise,” a 2013 documentary about a group of black students matriculating a predominantly white prep school. “American Promise” shared a similar structure, taking place over a period of 14 years. The collapse of time makes the film feel as if life is unfolding before the camera, but it’s not meant to be our life. “Black boyhood is always black first, boy later,” Bugbee writes.
“Boyhood” is allowed to speak for everyone, in the way that Tom Hanks’ films are allowed to be about us, because it studiously avoids the racial reality of Bush-era Texas. Mason has few friends of color, and he interacts with these background characters in the most fleeting of moments: the fellow student who expresses interest in him and the Latino gardener who hasn’t realized his untapped potential. Mason’s mother (Patricia Arquette), dipping into Inspiring White Lady territory, pleads with her landscaper to go to community college, as if no one had ever had the conversation with him before. When they meet again years later, it turns out that her advice changed his life. The moment, though, isn’t about his achievement. It’s about her wisdom.
What would “Boyhood” — or even “Adulthood” — look like from the gardener’s perspective? It’s a good question to which we rarely find out the answer.
You won’t find it in “Sully,” which joins a long list of movies that define the American everyhero as the exclusive province of white men with wives and children to feed.
“World Trade Center,” Oliver Stone’s surprisingly straightforward look at Port Authority officers buried alive by the debris of the September 11 attacks, casts Nicolas Cage, sporting a full-on New Yawk drawl, as the symbol of human perseverance. His Latino partner, played by Michael Peña (“Crash”), also survives the tragedy, but his hero’s journey is treated as a lesser story. The protagonists of films like “Lone Survivor,” “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi,” and “We Were Soldiers,” parables about courage and sacrifice, are almost always Caucasian. Our patriots look like Mark Wahlberg, John Krasinski and Mel Gibson — not Denzel Washington.
You might remember “Flight,” the Robert Zemeckis film starring Washington as a pilot who would seem to have a great deal in common with Chesley Sullenberger. William Whitaker, Sr. manages to save everyone on board SouthJet Flight 227, a plane that crash-lands into a field.
But if “Sully” invents a fake controversy to vindicate its male lead, the NTSB doesn’t have trouble finding dirt on Whitaker. The pilot, an alcoholic and frequent cocaine user, was under the influence during the flight. Whitaker covertly spikes his orange juice with vodka before passing out. When he regains consciousness, it’s too late. The crash puts his co-pilot (Brian Geraghty) in a coma and kills several of his passengers and crew. Instead of valorizing its black lead, “Flight” makes Whitaker a victim of his moral failings. He’s nobody’s hero.
The contrast with Eastwood’s own “American Sniper,” which dabbles in hagiography to create an everyman patriot, is striking. The film stars Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle, an Iraq War sniper who boasted the most kills in military history. The Oscar-nominated film was a massive hit, the top-earning film domestically of 2014, because of how effectively it made Kyle into a symbol of the hell of war. The sniper is rocked by PTSD, unable to leave behind what he has seen. “American Sniper” is a mournful tone poem celebrating collective sacrifice, but the real-life Chris Kyle was an unrepentant racist who showed little remorse for the innocents killed in combat.
If the black everyman is suspect and fallible, men like Kyle get to be ciphers no matter what.
“Sully” is yet another cog in Eastwood’s propaganda machine, straining with great difficulty to make a good man into a teachable moment. The film wants badly for Sullenberger to be a lesson in rugged individualism, someone who fits the director’s personal conservative worldview. Eastwood, now also famous for lecturing a chair, believes that government should “leave everybody alone.” In regards to Sullenberger, he should have taken that advice. Throughout “Sully,” the character insists that he’s not a hero, just a friendly man with a mustache doing his job. It would have really been something if the film allowed him to be right.
America doesn’t need another mythic everyman. What it needs is to broaden the definition of a term that celebrates some stories as universal at the expense of others.