Clint Eastwood, Bard of Competence

The director’s latest film eschews his typically epic cinematic themes to revel in an everyday miracle: being good at one’s job.

Tom Hanks and Clint Eastwood on the set of <em>Sully</em>
Warner Bros.

In the days after US Airways Flight 1549 ditched into the Hudson River, with all 155 people aboard the plane surviving the impact, the water landing came to be known as “the miracle on the Hudson.” The term came from the movies: “We had a Miracle on 34th Street,” New York’s then-governor, David Paterson, said in a speech hailing the heroics that made for the successful water landing. He paused. “I believe now we have had a Miracle on the Hudson.”

In his upcoming movie about the fated flight, Sully—named, of course, for the pilot who guided the Airbus to safety that day—Clint Eastwood frames that miracle in more prosaic (you could also say more humanist) terms. Here, the successful ditching of the plane into the frigid waters of the Hudson is a triumph not of divine intervention, but of something both duller and more interesting: basic human competence. Things worked out the way they did that day because Captain Chesley Sullenberger and his first officer, Jeffrey Skiles, were able to summon years’ worth of rote aviation experience to transform a narrow body of water into an ad hoc runway.

That bit of spiritual revisionism would seem to make Sully, which will premiere on Friday as the 38th movie Clint Eastwood has directed, fitting for a moment whose movies are as concerned with reveling in life’s banalities as with escaping them. Sully is Eastwood’s entry into an expansive—and burgeoning—genre: “competence porn.”

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.

This is also to say that Eastwood focuses, essentially, on the human work that made the miracle, on the professional expertise that allowed it to be achieved. Here is the 10,000-hours thesis, celebrated for its filmic virtues.

And here, too, is competence celebrated for its own sake—and not just at the individual level. Sully is a celebration, according to its star, of institutions themselves. “In the political atmosphere we’re in, there are an awful lot of points being made on [the notion that] you can’t count on people and institutions because they’re all broken—that none of them work,” Tom Hanks said of the film. “Well, that’s nonsense. They’re not all broken. And you can still have faith in them. And, in that regard, I think this movie makes a really strong case.”

If so, it’s a generally new chapter for Eastwood. In his personal life, after all, he has identified as a libertarian, and his “leave everybody alone” stance is what has informed Eastwood’s better-known political activities, whether they involve (recently) decrying the varied delicacies of the “pussy generation” or (slightly less recently) giving a televised lecture to a chair. And yet a celebration of institutional competence also serves as an apt coda to Eastwood’s earliest work and explorations: There is, after all, a certain freedom that comes when someone is really, really skilled at something. And when it’s a bunch of someones who join forces to be really, really skilled at something together, great things can happen. Things that can be, indeed, their own kind of miracle.