Despite his political orientation, Clint Eastwood makes films which do something far more complicated that jingoistic patriotism: his cinema interrogates the impact of war trauma on the lives of everyday Americans. In his first directorial efforts, Play Misty for Me (1971) and High Plains Drifter (1973), Eastwood foregrounded traumatized Americans on a home front devastated by the Vietnam War. This specific project culminated with the release of two films in 2006, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. A dual interrogation of the Battle of Iwo Jima from the perspectives of both American and Japanese soldiers, Eastwood relegates the bureaucratically self-interested, media circus representation of that bloody island battle to the background, in order to move front and center the lives of the soldiers on both sides.
Eastwood’s exquisite instinct for sensing the ways in which warfare produces social trauma salvages his latest film, Sully (2016). A biopic based on Highest Duty, the autobiography of Captain Sully Sullenberger, the film depicts the successful January 2009 landing of a commercial jetliner into the Hudson River. Other than Sullenberger being forced to make a split-second decision as to whether to return the crippled plane to the airport or execute an unprecedented emergency landing in a river running through a giant city, the plot of the film has no dramatic conflict. It stretches to find some interest in a bureaucratic investigation of Sullenberger’s actions, but Eastwood’s anti-government proclivities, nested in misogyny, strain the film to the point of absurdity.
Robert Zemeckis’ Flight (2012) had already covered such ground, and with much better dramatic tension. In that film, the fictional Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) crash-lands a plane by flying it upside down, executing a remarkable feat of aviation after a mechanical failure similarly cripples his equipment. However, in the first scene of Zemeckis’ film, we see Whip drinking alchol and using drugs, revealing him to be, despite his aviation wizardry, a morally and ethically bankrupt witness at the subsequent FAA hearings. The equally right-wing Zemeckis uses Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” as a visual analogue for the crucifixion of Whitaker by the investigators. However, in the case of Flight, the feds are completely correct, and when they ask the pilot to deny his culpability a third time, he finally fesses up and goes to jail a redeemed man.
There is no such moral culpability on Sully’s part. He is squeaky clean, happily married, drug and alcohol free. His FAA investigators absurdly run simulations in which test pilots using computers demonstrate the pilot could have safely returned to the airport without ditching the plane in the river. When Sully asks that they consider the time human beings might take when hundreds of passengers’ lives hang in the balance, the test pilots fare far worse on their pretend trip back to the airport. Eastwood smugly foregrounds Sully’s victory over the bureaucratic forces of computer simulation, not seeming to sense what an obvious straw man he has presented us.
And yet it is in the film’s little moments away from its trumped up drama that the film finds its voice, subtle and powerful. The film returns again and again to the trauma of 9/11. In fact, the opening sequence is of a plane crashing into a skyscraper in the middle of Manhattan. This turns out to be one of Sully’s nightmares, but the emotional gambit of the film is that his personal nightmare is our collective one as well. Later in the film, during one of the many replays of the emergency landing, told Rashomon-like from many points-of-view, we see a man in a building watching the crippled plane approach his location. In an elegant camera position, featuring him in long-shot in front of the plane in the far distance, creeping closer, Eastwood’s film presents the formerly hidden voices of the 9/11 victims. If not for the aviation daring of Captain Sullenberger, their numbers would have increased via another airplane to skyscraper collision, the return of the repressed of monumental modernity.
My favorite sequence in the film, however, does not attempt such triumphal grandeur. Instead, we see the events from the point of view of Patrick, a young air traffic controller who happened to be on duty when the birds destroyed both of Sully’s engines. We see him devastated as he loses verbal contact with the plane, assuming it has crashed. He mutters, “This isn’t happening,” as his supervisor whisks him to a secure room for urine testing. Later, we finally return to Patrick, whose colleague has to tell him that Sullenberger landed the plane and that every single one of the passengers and crew are safe. “It’s a miracle,” the colleague declares. It is the film’s most emotionally resonant moment.
Eastwood fails in his attempt to find drama in non-existent governmental incompetence, but Sully soars when it reveals the human impact of trauma on Patrick’s psyche. In her book, Stiffed, Susan Faludi documents how the enforcement of traditional masculinity devastates men in recent American history. Her example is the Apollo astronauts, selected because of their status as fighter pilots, but rendered mere “spam in a can,” at the whims of the engineers at mission control. For all his traditional bluster, and indeed Sully privileges the military pilot as having saved the day in John Wayne style, Eastwood’s greatest contribution to cinema will prove to be his acute awareness of the effect of war trauma on the rest of us. Most of us are Patrick: is it happenstance that this is also the name of John Wayne’s son, ridiculed for being a greenhorn at the end of The Searchers?