Sinister Distortions: the Rightwing Politics of Eastwood’s “Sully”


Still from “Sully” (Warner Bros.)

As an actor and director, Clint Eastwood has been involved in movie and television production for better than half a century.  He’s made some outstanding pictures, notably Unforgiven (1992) and Mystic River (2003), neither of which betrays a particular political viewpoint.  But the release of American Sniper (2014) revealed Eastwood’s hard rightwing perspective in relentless and unflinching fashion.  It is based on the mendacious memoir of Chris Kyle, a racist who murdered more human beings as a sniper than anyone in US military history.  (Kyle actually considered himself a Christian and had crucifixes tattooed to his forearms.)  Rather than condemn Kyle’s attrocious conduct Eastwood exalted it, celebrated it, and made this vile man a “hero”.  Eastwood was also involved in Heartbreak Ridge (1986) which showed US soldiers bravely invading the tiny resort island of Grenada and Gran Torino (2008) wherein a retired Detroit auto worker uses primitive brutality to defend his neighbors.  Both films ennoble the conservative principle that might is right.

Eastwood learned film making from the late Don Siegel, one of the truly great Hollywood directors who first worked with Clint on Coogan’s Bluff (1968), a fish-out-of-water flick that follows an Arizona lawman to the Big Apple, where he is tasked with extraditing a felon.  Siegel’s movies are marked by their efficiency and fluidity, and rarely contain an empty moment.  The two men next collaborated on Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970) and Dirty Harry (1971), the latter becoming a smash hit that spawned a string of Dirty Harry pictures concluding with The Dead Pool (1988).

Clint Eastwood and Dirty Harry became synonomous.  The Harry Callahan character rarely alters his expression, which made him a perfect candidate for Eastwood’s limited acting repertoire.  Sergio Leone, who famously directed Eastwood in his Spaghetti Westerns of the 60’s, once said Eastwood could only muster two expressions: Clint with his hat on and Clint with his hat off.

Harry Callahan as portrayed by Eastwood is a facistic, sadistic, murdering monster—a malevolent screen icon that appeals to a very dark element in US society.  (Given the success of these movies, it becomes discomfittingly obvious that said dark element embraces a substantial portion of the US population.)  Siegel, whose political views were decidedly leftist, distanced himself from the Dirty Harry franchise while Eastwood proudly embraced it.

As a director Eastwood’s career is checkered.  He’s made some truly interesting movies such as Bronco Billy (1980) and White Hunter, Black Heart (1990), and some really awful ones.  The Gauntlet (1977) and Space Cowboys (2000) should be avoided at all costs.  Off-screen, Eastwood is known for his financial rapacity and his personal vindictiveness.

On January 15, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 made an emergency landing in the Hudson River.  All 155 passengers and crew survived, and the incident would later be called the “Miracle on the Hudson”.  Captain Chesley Sullenberger, who piloted the aircraft, emerged as a national hero.  “Sully”—as he came to be popularly known—is the subject of Eastwood’s most recent feature.

Sully (2016) Directed by Clint Eastwood

Sully opens to the sounds of an airplane cockpit against a dark screen.  Next we see Tom Hanks as Chesley Sullenberger at the controls of an airliner reporting “Mayday!  Mayday!” to Air Traffic Control.  Aaron Eckhart plays Jeff Skiles, the co-pilot.  “We’ve lost both engines,” Sully explains, “both engines.”  Seconds later he tells them: “. . . we can make it.  We’re turning back to LaGuardia.”

We watch the crippled aircraft with smoke streaming from its two engines and panic seizing its passengers descend over New York and clip a wing on the side of a skyscraper before crashing into a busy Manhattan street corner.  Sully awakens from this nightmare alone in a darkened hotel room.

From the getgo, the audience is informed in a manner less than subtle that turning back to LaGuardia would be a fatal mistake.  Whether or not Sully should have turned back is the central question posed by Eastwood’s Sully and one that entirely comprehends what passes for the movie’s plot.

After observing him awaken, we follow Sully as he jogs along the river before returning to his Manhattan hotel, where he watches media coverage of the “Miracle on the Hudson”.

Next day Sully and Skiles are brought before a panel of investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).  (In an actual NTSB investigation, the two men would have been questioned separately.)  The panel is openly hostile (it is composed of Jamey Sheridan as Ben Edwards, Anna Gunn as Dr. Elizabeth Davis and Mike O’Malley as Charles Porter).  Their questions are aggressive and adversarial (odd, given the recent heroism of these two men).  They label the event a “crash”.  Sully pointedly contradicts them, calling it a “forced water landing”.  The panel believes Flight 1549 had sufficient altitude to make it back to LaGuardia, but Sully tells them he believes turning back would have been a mistake.  The two pilots are informed that computer simulations of the event will be run.  Pilot and co-pilot are then asked if they’d consumed drinks or drugs before the flight (these standard NTSB questions are delivered in an admonitory and distrustful manner) and the two men answer that they had not.

The film then shows us Sully in New York and his wife (played by Laura Linney) back in California separately besieged by the press.  Throughout all this Sully expesses no jubilation or triumph or, at the very least, relief that 155 human beings were saved by his actions.  This is decidedly unnatural.

Sully has a second nightmare.  In it a TV talking head takes him to task for making a wrong decision when he ditched the plane.  “Captain Sullenberger,” the female newscaster asks, “are you a hero or a fraud?”  (It is fitting that two of film’s early sequences reside in the province of dreams.)

Sully and Skiles go on a late night walk through the streets of New York.  Skiles tells Sully they’ve been booked on Letterman.  Sully comments on the surreal nature of their situation and tells Skiles: “I’ve delivered a million passengers over 40 years in the air and in the end I’m going to be judged on 208 seconds.”  This very effective line in such a context is both fraudulent and misleading, as will be explained below.

We see Sully interviewed by Katie Couric.  As she questions him we see, by flashback, Sully learning to fly in a biplane.  After the interview Sully gazes out an office window at the New York skyline and has another vision of the terrible crash he’d earlier witnessed in his nightmare.

Once again Sully and Skiles are brought before the NTSB panel and once again their interrogators are hostile and accusatory.  Now a question arises as to whether the aircraft’s left engine remained functional after the bird strike.  Certain data suggests it could have been restarted.  During this session they are informed that computer simulations confirmed they could have safely returned to LaGuardia.  The panel also expresses concern about leaks to the press.   Afterwards, Skiles tells Sully not to worry, that he did good.  Later they appear on Letterman.

The following day Sully’s wife calls him, worried about domestic financial concerns.  He expresses anxiety over the NTSB investigation and she tells him he’s a hero, and the NTSB will just have to deal with it.

Now we are shown the first of three sequences depicting the actual event.  In the initial run-through we see Sully purchase a tuna sandwich from a vendor in a terminal at LaGuardia Airport and board the US Airways Airbus.  We see passengers hustling to make the flight.  Sully and Skiles exchange banter in the cockpit while late arrivals find their seats.  Then comes the usual air safety drill from the flight attendants as Flight 1549 taxis for takeoff.

We watch the Airbus rise into a wintry sky.  New York spreads out below them, patterned with snow.  Sully comments on how beautiful the world is from up here, then barks: “Birds!”  A chevron of geese smash into the airliner.  We see the starboard engine catch fire as disquiet spreads through the passenger compartment.  Inside the aircraft it falls strangely silent.  Sully and Skiles confirm that both engines are inoperable while flight attendants remind passengers to fasten their seatbelts.  The action shifts to Air Traffic Control where a savvy controller (played by Patch Darragh) clears a runway at LaGuardia, with Teterboro as an alternative.  Then we see Sully telling the passengers: “Brace for impact.”  The controller watches as Flight 1549 vanishes from his screen, and alerts all aircraft in the vicinity to keep an eye out for the stricken Airbus.

We watch Sully dead-sticking his aircraft into the Hudson.  On impact with the river, we are returned to Sully’s hotel room.  Once again, Sully goes running.  He sees an F-4 Phantom on the deck of the USS Intrepid and we flashback to Sully in the Air Force back in the 60’s safely landing a malfunctioning Phantom.  Returning to the present, Sully ends up at a Manhattan bar where he is told a new drink has been named in his honor.

While Sully sits at the bar we witness the second dramatization of the forced water landing, this time from the perspective of ferries on the Hudson and first responders in the immediate vicinity.  In this sequence we are provided a brief glimpse of the Airbus striking water and are offered a look inside the passenger compartment at the moment of impact.  Thereafter, the passengers evacuate to the aircraft’s wings on a cold cold day in January.  A helicopter shot tracks ferries swinging out from various locations as they make for the fallen airliner, trailing bright apostrophes against gray-green water.  We watch these large cumbersome watercraft gingerly edge up to the fragile aircraft’s wings and witness crewmen hoisting passengers to safety.  No one panics.  No one screams for help.  This sequence is particularly engrossing, and it illustrates how the city’s first responders functioned collectively in a moment of crisis.  Having just been saved from freezing water, passengers arriving onshore are greeted by emergency workers who provide them warm dry Red Cross blankets and lead them to shelter.  This is how it actually happened—a moment the City of New York should be damned proud of.

When Sully arrives onshore he asks for the survivor count.  He had 155 people on the Airbus and is desperate to learn the number of those rescued.  When informed that the Mayor and Chief of Police want to see him, Sully thinks only of those in his charge.  While being checked out at a hospital, Sully is informed that all 155 aboard the plane have survived.  He and Skiles are put up in a hotel while the NTSB initiates its investigation.

The flashback ends and Sully leaves the bar and calls a friend, asking him to obtain the results of the computer simulations before the next NTSB meeting.

We then follow Sully and Skiles to NTSB headquarters in Washington, DC.  Once again the two pilots face a hostile panel of inquisitors.  In this scene, some 40 or 50 additional “experts” are present to witness the hearing.  Computer simulations are produced that demonstrate the ease with which Flight 1549 could have safely returned to LaGuardia.  Sully protests the simulations do not take into account the human factor and that time must be added to accommodate the decision-making process.  The panel agrees to add 35 seconds.  Skiles tells Sully it isn’t enough time but Sully counters that given the 208 total seconds involved, he’ll take it.  With this added time the simulations fail.

Now the actual cockpit recording is played and we see the third and final dramatization of the crash, which reveals all that happens in the cockpit and shows the forced water landing in its entirety.  After the recording ends, Sully and Skiles are informed that the left engine has been recovered from the bottom of the Hudson and its condition confirms Sully’s claim that it could not have been restarted.  The two pilots are completely vindicated.

Distortions presented by the film—which barely runs ninety minutes—are numerous and potentially harmful.  I am particularly troubled by how the NTSB is treated.  As an organization, the NTSB has long possessed a sterling reputation for probity and insightful analysis.  To present its investigators as flint-hearted, callous, hostile and adversarial is beyond distortion.  It approaches the legal definition of defamation.  Work the NTSB does is invaluable.  Its worth is truly beyond calculation.  To denigrate this important agency in such fashion ought to be a criminal offense.

In an article by Stephen Cass in The Guardian dated September 12, 2016 and titled “Sullied: with Sully Clint Eastwood is weaponizing a hero” Cass writes: “. . . the film has smeared the NTSB’s reputation for the sake of a hero who needed no defending”.  Cass goes on to write: “Directed and co-produced by Clint Eastwood, the film Sully claims to tell the true story of the “miracle on the Hudson”.  Instead, it is another rightwing attempt to delegitimize government—and in the process undermine the safety of millions who travel by air, train, road and boat”.

On September 9, 2016 an article titled “What The ‘Sully’ Movie Gets Wrong” by Barbara Peterson appeared in Conde Nast Traveler.  In it she writes: “Director Eastwood has admitted that he needed a villain. “Where’s the antagonist?” he reportedly asked when approached about the project. Sully’s best-selling book, Highest Duty, was more inspirational than a tell-all, and offered no candidates for the role of black hat. So the filmmakers solved their no-drama problem, in true Hollywood fashion, by making one up.”

Her article continues:

Actually, they made up an entire band of baddies, a glowering tribunal of investigators who torment Sully and Skiles for days immediately after the accident, not just questioning their decisions but contradicting their accounts.

When the film’s pilots are shown in their first interview with the feds, the plot quickly strays from the well-known narrative.  The so-called “lead investigator Charles Porter,” played by Mike O’Malley as a snarling Torquemada, immediately pounces on Sully and Skiles about alcohol and drug use, and follows that with claims that “engineers” and simulations of the flight revealed that they could have gotten the plane safely back to LaGuardia.  Better yet: One engine still had power.  Sully and Skiles are shocked, traumatized; Sully fears losing not just his reputation, but his whole livelihood: “I’ve got 40 years in the air but in the end I’m going to be judged on 208 seconds.”

Peterson contacted Robert Benzon, the actual NTSB investigator assigned the accident on the Hudson.  She records:

“The NTSB treated Captain Sullenberger and his fellow crewmembers very benignly, as we always did in the many other major investigations with crew interviews,” he said.  In fact, by the time the NTSB conducted interviews, “they were international heroes,” he adds.  “As a result, we were even more deferential.”


In Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters by Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger with Jeffrey Zaslow (Harper/Collins 2009), Sully himself says of the NTSB: “In the end, I was buoyed by the fact that invesgators determined that Jeff and I made appropriate choices at every step.”  (Highest Duty at p. 274)  Later in the book Sully describes flying to Washington where he meets Jeff Skiles and together they listen to the cockpit tape:

There were six of us in the room: Jeff Skiles, Jeff Diercksmeier, a US Airline Pilots Association accident investigation committee member, three NTSB officials (two investigators and a specialist from the agency’s recordings section), and me.  The investigators were happy to have Jeff and me there with them.  (Highest Duty at p. 308)

Listening to the tape, however, I realized that everything really happened in 208 extraordinarily time-compressed seconds.  (Highest Duty at p. 310)

These, then, are the 208 seconds the movie Sully feared his entire career would be judged by.  There is also the issue of the computer simulations that caused the movie Sully such anxiety.  A Wall Street Journal article by Andy Pasztor dated May 4, 2010 reports:

Documents indicate nearly two dozen emergency simulations were flown by experienced aviators, including an Airbus test pilot, at the manufacturer’s headquarters in Toulouse, France.  Four out of four attempts to return to the closest LaGuardia runway were succcessful, according to the safety board’s summary.  There were nine additional simulated attempts to land at LaGuardia, either at a different runway or under a scenario in which the plane was more severely disabled.  Of those, three were successful.

Early on, Airbus officials were so squeamish about potentially being seen as second-guessing the heroic actions of the pilots, according to people familiar with the details, that  they broached the idea with the safety board of keeping the results private.

Rather than NTSB investigators using simulations as a club to threaten Sully and Skiles, the facts say just the opposite.  Not only were NTSB officials friendly toward the two pilots, but they also went out of their way to preserve the heroic reputation the two men had rightfully earned.  Barbara Peterson in her Conde Nast Traveler article writes: “. . . the NTSB was never consulted or even contacted by anyone connected with the film, a spokesperson confirms.”

In his article for The Guardian Stephen Cass agrees with Peterson that for dramatic reasons, the film makers made NTSB investigators the movie’s villains.  Cass adds:

It is not hard to see why this tack appealed to strident libertarian Eastwood.  In its populist zeal, the American right wing has been increasingly unwilling to accept the legitimacy of any branch of federal government.  Sully meshes perfectly with a worldview where petty and clueless civil servants obstruct real Americans from being great.

Using a popular film to make political points is nothing new, but what sets Sully apart is its sinister distortion of an event so recent and so universally acclaimed in order to blacken the reputation of a government agency internationally recognized as the very best at what it does.  The NTSB trains investigators the world over in the complex science of accident investigation.  Once again the right cannot alter the past and so attempts to rewrite it.

Chris Welzenbach is a playwright (“Downsize”) who for many years was a member of Walkabout Theater in Chicago. He can be reached at incoming@chriswelzenbach.com