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Odd Ideological Pairing of Tom Hanks and Clint Eastwood Helps ‘Sully’ Soar

The movie courts controversy with its representation of the pilot’s nightmares, which include planes crashing into Manhattan skyscrapers as the 9/11 anniversary nears


The story of US Airways Flight 1549 and the Miracle on the Hudson is a tale of timing, from pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s quick decision to ditch in the river to his split-second-accurate touchdown. In the balance during those 208 seconds: 155 souls and quite possibly the stability of the country.

"Sully," Clint Eastwood's new movie starring Tom Hanks as the white-haired crew leader behind the 2009 water landing, arrives with some interesting timing of its own. It opens Friday amid the somber commemorations marking the 15th anniversary of 9/11, as well as during the final leg of one of our most partisan presidential elections.

Even amid a nation divided, few would disagree that Sully the man remains a hero for our times. Still, that's a lot for any pilot – or any film – to live up to.

At first glance, the pairing of Eastwood, whose last foray into presidential politics involved talking to an empty chair at the 2012 GOP convention, and Hanks, an outspoken Hollywood liberal, would seem an odd one.

But both movie icons have delved into more complex depictions of heroism as they’ve aged. Eastwood showed as much with 2014's "American Sniper," which, for all the debate it spurred, depicted some of the demons facing Navy SEAL sharpshooter Chris Kyle. Hanks, echoing the latter-day career of his spiritual cinematic predecessor, Jimmy Stewart, occasionally plays on morally ambiguous turf, most recently with "Bridge of Spies."

"Sully" goes beyond the familiar feel-good story by examining the under-told account of how Sullenberger's decision not to try to return to LaGuardia Airport amid dual engine loss at 2,800 feet spurred some high-level second-guessing, forcing him to defend himself. Eastwood and Hanks set out to portray the pilot’s emotional struggle in the aftermath of his feat, which came just days before Barack Obama's first inauguration.

While Sullenberger is now a generally revered figure, the movie could be courting controversy with its representation of the pilot’s nightmares, which include planes crashing into Manhattan skyscrapers. “It's just a bad dream sequence, and what could have happened if he didn't make the right decision," Eastwood told The Hollywood Reporter.

The images, which might prove disturbing to some, especially as the 9/11 anniversary nears, can never outweigh the real-life scenes of passengers waiting on the wings of the Airbus A320, bobbing atop the frigid Hudson. To many, the passengers are living proof of the legacy of a hero who used his experience, skill and grit to guide a miracle made for the nation and for the movies.

Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.

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