The real message of Clint Eastwood's 'Sully'

Tom Hanks: 'Captain Sully is a hero'
Tom Hanks: 'Captain Sully is a hero'

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Tom Hanks: 'Captain Sully is a hero' 01:40

Story highlights

  • The new movie "Sully," about the Hudson River emergency landing reveals disorienting experience of being a sudden hero
  • Gene Seymour: In Clint Eastwood's telling, a simple act of professionalism is distorted through modern media lens

Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and the Washington Post. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

(CNN)You're pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger and everybody thinks you're a great man -- except you.

As Tom Hanks plays you in Clint Eastwood's new movie, "Sully," you act as though somebody else, some figment of the public's imagination, managed to land a crippled airliner on the ice-cold Hudson River and save the lives of everybody on board, including you.
    Young women you've never met before rush up to hug and kiss you as if you're Santa Claus, minus the bulk and the beard. It's slowly dawning on you that from now until the day you die, every drink you ever order at every bar you enter will be on the house, even though you insist on paying anyway.
    You run, walk, jog and sometimes stumble through Manhattan streets, seemingly implacable, but also confused. Who is this guy they're all toasting and cheering and clamoring after for interviews? It's as though you're living everybody else's dream, except yours.
    In fact, every time you close your eyes, you wake up believing you could be far less a hero than the rest of the world believes, that there were so many ways things could have gone wrong.
    Sullenberger on importance of leadership
    Sullenberger on importance of leadership

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    Sullenberger on importance of leadership 03:50
    And you dimly suspect it's not only possible, but probable that the federal agency charged with investigating your crash landing may be right in suspecting that you, as the plane's pilot, took an unnecessary chance by ditching US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson instead of going by the book and heading back to LaGuardia Airport.
    So what's with Sully's bemused circumspection? I mean, sure, there's something to be said for modesty and coolness under all kinds of pressure. But is this what happens in the 21st century when somebody shows The Right Stuff? Is this what it means to do good in broad daylight when there are so many more ways for people to look at you?
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    Well, yes. And that, more than anything else, is what makes this movie, the 39th directed by Eastwood, more intriguing than expected.
    Most of the reviews so far, positive and negative, have focused on both Hanks' nuanced central performance and Eastwood's characteristically straightforward direction. Some critics have praised "Sully" for clocking in at a taut 96 minutes, a rarity these days for a major, much-hyped Hollywood project. Others have criticized it for pumping way too much into an event whose elapsed time was barely more than 200 seconds.
    Watch the trailer for 'Sully'
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    Watch the trailer for 'Sully' 01:55
    But as with the more interesting items in Eastwood's crowded filmography, which includes "Mystic River," "Gran Torino," "Letters from Iwo Jima" and the Academy Award-winning "Unforgiven," this retelling of the true story of the near-miraculous 2009 emergency landing of the US Airways jet represents a quiet subversion of what is usually expected from stories of American heroism.
    More to the point, "Sully" is a movie about a hero who has trouble imagining himself as a hero. And it's all the junk and clutter of our modern Global Village, the spoils and the skepticism, that obstructs his view of his own achievement.
    Cockpit recordings of Hudson River crash landing (2009)
    Cockpit recordings of Hudson River crash landing (2009)

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      Cockpit recordings of Hudson River crash landing (2009)

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    Cockpit recordings of Hudson River crash landing (2009) 00:38
    Some critics allege it's Eastwood's libertarian politics that make the government inquisitors the movie's prohibitive baddies. But it's not just them. It's the goggle-eyed swooning, the media's noisy, disorienting insistence on packaging, branding and marketing what was, in the end, a natural, altogether professional impulse. "Sully's" real dramatic struggle is about overcoming all that.
    We're not going to spoil things with specifics. Let's just say that the resolution of this struggle, towards the end, suggests what all of us need to do to get above media-saturated, bite-sized platitudes.
    Sift through the white noise for what you recognize as your own essence and keep on going with your life as honestly as you can.
    That process may be just as risky as trying to plant a large plane on a cold river. But if you stick the landing, the results can be just as rewarding.