Celebrating American Greatness in the Shadow of 9/11

Something really interesting has been going on over at Malpaso Productions, Clint Eastwood’s movie production company. The three most recent films Eastwood produced and directed comprise a trilogy with a theme worthy of our attention.

The theme emerges most clearly if we begin with “Sully,” the second film in the series. “Sully” tells the story of “the Miracle on the Hudson.” On Jan. 15, 2009, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and co-pilot Jeff Skiles managed to do the impossible. US Airways Flight 1549 from New York’s La Guardia Airport slammed into a flock of geese right after takeoff, causing both engines to fail. The successful water landing on the river next to Manhattan saved the lives of all 155 people on board—and averted another disaster for the city similar to the one on 9/11.

9/11 is subtly evoked throughout the film, and the very first moments brilliantly establish the connection between 1/15/09 and 9/11/01. (Please allow me to pass over how the film begins without further comment. I don’t want to spoil it for you when you watch, or re-watch, the movie.)    

“Sully” tells the story of a miracle, and is itself a kind of cinematic miracle. This is filmmaking at its best. Like Captain Sullenberger managing to do the impossible, Clint Eastwood manages to do what most directors won’t even attempt because it is simply too difficult. He tells a story we all know, tells it as it actually happened, and succeeds in making a great film. He even makes a film in Hollywood that celebrates America!

Eastwood makes it very clear to us that he is celebrating America. At the close of the hearings that are part of the investigation into the forced landing on the Hudson, one of the investigators tells the Sully character, brilliantly played by Tom Hanks, that no matter how many times they run the numbers in simulations, they can’t get what happened to happen. There is, she says, an “X” factor and you, Captain Sullenberger, are that “X” factor. Hanks’ Sully adroitly turns her compliment aside, pointing instead to the professionalism of his crew, the behavior of the passengers, and the response by the professionals and by the citizens who simply happened to be in the vicinity who rushed to help.

That is as close as the Sully character and Eastwood come to filling out the meaning of the “X” factor, but clearly we are meant to understand that “Sully” is not just about Sullenberger. Eastwood drives the point home by ending the film with documentary footage of the Americans who survived Flight 1549 celebrating together what happened on that day.

The first film in the trilogy, “American Sniper,” also returns us to the real world at the end of the film with actual footage of a very different kind of celebration. Great numbers of Americans and many American flags line the funeral procession of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. Kyle saved countless lives, and became a legend among U.S. forces. That made him a prime target of the enemy, placing him in greater and greater danger through four tours of duty in Iraq, only to be murdered at home by someone he was trying to help.

Like Captain Sullenberger, Kyle’s astonishing skill puts him far beyond the ordinary. Yet, in keeping with our theme of American greatness, the film is not titled “The Chris Kyle Story.” It is, the title tells us, the story of an American sniper, told with the brilliance we have come to expect from Eastwood.

In the third film, Eastwood goes all the way.

“The 15:17 To Paris” tells another well-known true story of American greatness. Three young Americans on vacation in Europe subdue a jihadist on a speeding train, saving everyone on board. Once again, we are in the shadow of 9/11. “15:17” has elements of the story of United Flight 93 on 9/11 when a heroic band of Americans on board rushed the jihadis who had taken over the airplane.

There are some very interesting differences between “15:17” and the other two films in the Eastwood trilogy. Sully and Kyle are heroic men of astonishing gifts and abilities. The three Americans in “15:17,” Anthony SadlerAlek Skarlatos, and especially Spencer Stone, who displayed astonishing bravery and survived miraculously, are American heroes, yet they are also the boys next door in your hometown.

In working through the theme of American greatness, Eastwood’s trilogy brings it back home to us by showing us that we cannot just rely on our Sully Sullenbergers and Chris Kyles. In the end, American greatness has to come down to you, and me, and the American who lives next door or is in the seat next to us. Eastwood drives that point home in how he ends the film.

“15:17” closes with actual footage of the three being honored in a parade in their hometown of Sacramento, California. Like “Sully” and “American Sniper,” “15:17” returns us to the real world—but with another big difference. The actual heroes being honored are also the actors in the film. Eastwood chose to have the three Americans play themselves, and very successfully too. It might be said of a decision like that one, “You have to work up to a thing like that.” Indeed.

See them all and be part of celebrating American greatness.

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