This term seems to have been coined in 2009, by John Rogers, one of the writers of the TV show Leverage—based on his recognition that, “for the audience, watching competent people banter and plan was a big part of the appeal.” The genre is older than its coinage, certainly; Star Wars would be considerably less awesome had Luke been unable to get the hang of a light saber. But it is having a particular moment now. Its exuding of competence is what helped to give The Martian its “science the shit out of it” verve. And what makes Olivia Pope, in Scandal, compelling as a professional as well as a character. And also the doctors of Seattle Grace. And the wonks of The West Wing. And the space-travelers of Star Trek. (And also the cooks of Top Chef, and the designers of Project Runway, and the singers of The Voice, and the bakers of The Great British Baking Show.)
The performance of competence is “porn,” ostensibly, because of the small frisson of pleasure it offers in presenting people who are really, really good at their jobs—that classic Hollywood cliche, “the human condition,” only refigured for relatable banality.
You might not expect Eastwood to make a film to join that genre. He is, after all—his professed annoyance against people over-reading his work notwithstanding—a director who tends to revel in themes of traditional epicness: heroism and its opposite, forgiveness and its opposite, justice and its opposite. As an actor but particularly as a director, over an expansive, omnivorous career, Eastwood has been broadly concerned with exploring what happens when the individual encounters the hulking machinery of the institution—be it law enforcement (Dirty Harry, The Outlaw Josey Wales), or the military (American Sniper, Flags of Our Fathers, Letters From Iwo Jima), or marriage (The Bridges of Madison County), or NASA (Space Cowboys). Eastwood favors straightforward, taut storytelling—he is Hemingway to Hollywood’s Nolanian, Herzogian Faulkners—and yet, thematically, his films tend to swoop and swerve and soar. Dirty Harry has become a philosopher.
And Eastwood has been at his best as a director when he’s taken his preferred dynamic, the individual chafing against the communal, to consider a theme that has particularly preoccupied him in recent years: redemption. The dynamics of grace, and the extent to which a right can compensate for a wrong, animate Gran Torino, and Million Dollar Baby, and Mystic River, and Invictus, and Unforgiven (perhaps his greatest film, if you don’t count the ones that found him co-starring with an orangutan named Clyde). Their attendant questions help to make Eastwood, whether his topic be cowboys or Jersey boys, continually relevant.
And yet, in Sully, this question seems to be absent. The film instead takes its nominal “miracle”—that fragile fusion of the human and the divine—and picks it apart, second by second and decision by decision. “For me, the real conflict came after,” Eastwood explains to Variety, “with the investigative board questioning his decisions, even though he’d saved so many lives.” So he trains his focus not on the landing itself, but on the bureaucratic aftermath of the landing: the investigation, designed to ensure that another miracle would not be necessary.