On January 15, 2009, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger successfully landed a damaged and impaired commercial airplane on New York’s Hudson River. Remarkably, every person on board survived. The event, henceforth known as the “Miracle on the Hudson,” provided a troubled nation with an inspiring tale of populist heroics, Sullenberger himself emblematic of modest dignity. The “miracle,” accompanied with its own enduring image of passengers on the floating jet’s wings, was the kind of clear humanity sorely lacking from the media cycle. Clint Eastwood, whose new film Sully dramatizes the event, is no stranger to iconic imagery and the afflicted American consciousness, and as such knows that no story is that simple. Sully, then, refuses the easy sentimentality that would seem requisite of the project, in favor of a work of precise introspection and analytic rhythms.
An event, a “miracle”: It becomes a matter of images and narrative, sequenced sound bites refracting a singular happening into a “story,” something of meaning and truth, a legend born of immediacy. What happened that day? Passengers on a floating plane’s wings imprint onto the conscience the miracle, and a man is proclaimed a hero. There is a fundamental chaos at work. While one reality is forged almost instantly, with images and interviews constructing the miracle, another operates in parallel: an investigation. The truth of the matter is still in play, and must be analyzed relentlessly, subject to alternative simulations. But reality is further scarred by internalization, the event realized as trauma and memory, an encounter with death. And so it is first seen as a nightmare.
We open with the nightmare, a vision of death. Sully (Tom Hanks), attempting to return the plane to LaGuardia Airport, crashes into Manhattan. He awakens with a start, shrouded in Eastwood’s chiaroscuro. Death, even death avoided, is an oppressive pall. The heroic event, the “miracle,” is seen as trauma. Like all of Eastwood’s recent films, memory, particularly that of trauma, is brought to the fore, as we grapple with one man’s subjective experience from both within and without.
Sully, having narrowly escaped death, is haunted, but PTSD is not the only specter. Instantly becoming a nation’s hero, he finds himself confronted with images of himself and his trauma: televisions are ubiquitous, and he is almost universally recognized by people he encounters—a new reality he describes as “surreal.” The event is now out of his hands, its meaning and consequence making him more than human but unable to live as one; Sully, again: “I just want myself back.” Eastwood moves effortlessly through his dreams, visions, and memories, match cuts take us forward and backward through time, interviews prompt internal reflection. Sully’s psychic space is interrupted, as the media cycle constructs his legend and touts the miracle, the event, again, out of his control, complicated further by the investigation’s findings in contrast to his own interpretation. For Eastwood, complicating the “Miracle on the Hudson” isn’t a matter of challenging the veracity of the actual happening, but rather a reflection upon its very status as a happening: what did this do to the survivors, what did this mean, how does one process a miracle?
For as much as this is a story of one man and his headspace, it is also a quietly symphonic work, a narrative of humanity in concert and shared experience. Sully, like Hoover in J. Edgar (2011) and Chris Kyle in American Sniper (2014), may color the film with his subjectivity, but instead of providing a story of mental pathologies (and their societal reflections), he serves less as a dangerous enigma and more as a centering sobriety. This is a film of overcoming trauma.
Throughout the film, Eastwood intertwines memory and media, coalescing with time and repetition into a view of how we construct our realties through both—and also how we live mediated experiences via technology. More than ever before, Sully finds its director fully engaged with the contemporary world. Omnipresent screens provide a bewildering saturation of imagery and sound-bite narrative: a journey through Times Square is rendered an echo chamber. Close-ups of hands operating various gadgets or controls observe the physical relationship of person and machine. Computers and pilots in simulation booths recreate the crash repeatedly. Familial relationships are maintained over phone, eschewing even one instance of personal contact. Eastwood does not, however, mount a (likely expected) cranky-old-man technophobe screed, instead outlining how intimately linked our existence, even our very cognition, is with technology. The plane may be the source of trauma, but we never doubt Sully’s love of flying, of the machines that have been central to his life.
Sullenberger spends much of the runtime bewildered by the crash. While the media isn’t necessarily antagonistic, it does run counter to the trauma of surviving such an event. It is in his ultimate confrontation with technological simulation that he achieves resolution: in judging the error of the human-piloted simulations, he resolves the film’s thematic core; despite our intertwining with technology, there is still a human impulse, an instinct, perhaps even creative, that defines an intangible line between ourselves and our mechanistic counterparts. It is, again, not antagonistic, but rather elucidating, the film arguing for a base of creative or instinctual interpretation where data fails.
Sully operates musically, with dovetailing flashbacks and connective montage uniting the rescuers and survivors. Eastwood establishes the ferry captains, air traffic controllers, and the scuba cops involved in the crash as their own separate elements. The blocking and cutting of the introduction to the scuba cops is revealing: a wide shot establishes the grace of unity and familiarity in a tight space, while cutting between medium shots reveals the relationships of the group. In a seemingly throwaway moment, Eastwood portrays something essential, a unity of humanity. When the pieces begin to move together, we realize how correct Sully himself is in deferring individual praise, instead opting to disperse it to all involved. The “miracle,” as we come to understand it, wasn’t miraculous at all: it was a group effort, a human movement towards survival. Machines, again, become as beautiful as they are threatening: the precise curvatures of maneuvering ferries are expressive of forces in motion, a concentrated effort to preserve life, a chorus.
Lucidity, in emotion and cognition, is the central goal of Sully. Our lucidity, machines’ lucidity. The fragmentation of an event belies its human reality: those who lived, those who helped. For Eastwood, constructing our reality is a troubling experience, as we are unable to filter out the cacophony of the outside world. But critically, there is an angle of approach, there is precision. During the film’s credits, Sullenberger and the actual crew and passengers appear; the captain speaks of their unity forever more through this shared experience. A nightmare transitions into clarity. Trauma, it seems, can be processed.