Are Sully’s views of masculine emotional intimacy outdated?

Posted Tuesday, September 13th, 2016 by Gregory Forman
Filed under Book, Film or Music Reviews, Not South Carolina Specific, Of Interest to General Public

Clint Eastwood’s just-released Sully clearly admires its titular character, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, played by Tom Hanks. It presents Sully as an icon of competence, integrity, and calm under pressure. Like most such movies lionizing competent men, it relegates the wife, here played by the thrice-Oscar-nominated, Laura Linney to a background role. Yet, wittingly or not, Eastwood’s take on their marital relationship is either highly misogynistic or a sad reflection of how such masculinity distorts marital intimacy.

The movie is set in the days after Sully successfully executed an emergency water landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River off Manhattan, after the aircraft was disabled by striking a flock of Canada geese during its initial climb out of LaGuardia Airport on January 15, 2009. All of the 155 passengers and crew aboard the aircraft survived. The movie is framed by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation into the cause of the crash, which the NTSB initially believes may be due to Sully’s poor judgment.

The movie uses flashbacks to show the actual flight’s assent, landing, and rescue. Through nightmare scenarios, it envisions Sully’s fear that he might have endangered his passengers and crew by attempting the water landing (rather than attempting to return to Laguardia or land at another airport), and his alternate fear that attempting such a landing might have resulted into the plane crashing into densely populated sections of Manhattan (shades of 9/11 echo through those scenes).

Because of this framing device, Hanks and Linney never appear together. She remains ensconced in their generic suburban cul-de-sac with what appear to be two daughters (their roles so limited that I don’t recall them having any speaking lines), while he and his co-pilot, played by Aaron Eckhart, are housed in a Manhattan Marriott, celebrated by the media and public, but challenged by the NTSB for failing to attempt to land the plane at nearby airports. Spousal interactions are limited to phone conversations (Sully’s archaic flip phone demonstrating how rapidly technology changes) and their exchanges uniformly hit the same note: Sully calls his wife; she proceeds to bombard him with her worries; he assures her everything will be fine.

These conversations end abruptly as Sully shifts his attention to what he perceives as pressing work duties (first insuring that all his passengers and crew were rescued; later addressing the NTSB investigation). His wife rarely (never?) asks how he’s handling the fear of almost dying, the pressure of being in the media spotlight, or the scrutiny of his decision to attempt a water landing. Meanwhile Sully does his (emotionally limited) best to assure her that he’s fine, and to empathize with her own media onslaught. He listens patiently, but briefly, while she expresses anxieties over his potential job loss and household bills. There’s no indication she understands, or even acknowledges, the tremendous stress of his situation. Similarly, there’s no indication that Sully is annoyed by her clueless self-absorption.

Rather than burden his wife with his fears, Sully saves such conversations for his (male) co-pilot, with whom he second guesses his decision and worries about his future. Perhaps, not ironically, it is the competence of Sully and his co-pilot that enabled the safe water landing and the rescue of all passengers and crew. In contrast, one senses that Sully obtains no emotional support from his wife, but sees his role in their marriage as being the stoic provider of safety–or, rather, the illusion of safety: Sully is fully aware of his inability to guarantee anyone’s safety no matter his level of competence.

At the end of the movie, Sully demonstrates to the NTSB that his decision to attempt the water landing not only saved his passengers and crew but prevented the much greater disaster of a crash into densely populated areas. Eastwood is celebrating a notion of masculinity that combines competence, integrity, calmness under pressure, and a concern for the needs and fears of others. In the world of work, this notion of masculinity is extremely attractive–and no longer confined to members of the male gender. However, in the scenes of Sully’s marriage, Eastwood is expressing that same view of masculinity–one involving sublimation of one’s own needs and fears to assuage the needs and fears of others. That conception of masculinity is antithetical to marital intimacy–which is why Sully’s relationship with his co-pilot seems more intimate than that with his wife.

These conceptions of masculinity are parallel. As a pilot, Sully presents an image of masculinity that assures his passengers that everything will be okay–even as he understands there is always a possibility of a crash. As a husband, Sully provides similar comfort through the assurance and false promises of security. Although contemporary cosmopolitan culture pays lip service to a desire to have men be more emotionally open, doing so would require removing the illusion of safety such masculinity provides and that so many find comforting. Eastwood would appear to not find such change desirable. I’m unclear the culture-at-large would either.

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