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The evolution of the Clint Eastwood hero, from the Man With No Name to Sully

Sully may be played by Tom Hanks, but he’s a Clint Eastwood hero through and through.

Clint Eastwood directs Tom Hanks as Chelsey Sullenberger, on the set of Sully.
Clint Eastwood directs Tom Hanks as Chelsey Sullenberger, on the set of Sully.
Warner Bros. via Everett Collection

For 45 years — longer if you count his work as an actor — Clint Eastwood has been churning out gruff, efficient movies about gruff, efficient men: low-key stories of strong and silent heroes and antiheroes who do their work, mull their regrets, and live with the consequences. His heroes show up, get the job done, and then go about their business, hoping to leave the world a little bit better in the process.

Eastwood’s latest film, Sully, offers yet another protagonist in this mold: Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot who in January 2009 crash-landed a commercial jetliner in the middle of the Hudson River outside Midtown Manhattan after a catastrophic engine failure, managing to save the lives of all 155 passengers in the process.

It’s a sober, earnest film about the virtues of quiet competence. Sully may not be Eastwood’s final film, but in many ways it serves as a summary and reflection of Eastwood’s own Hollywood career — and a reminder of why he is one of cinema’s most important and enduring filmmakers.

Eastwood’s filmography is focused on action and consequences

Eastwood got his start working as an actor in the 1950s and ’60s, most notably in a trio of epic spaghetti Westerns by Italian director Sergio Leone. In those films, Eastwood played a gunslinger who rarely speaks and is never identified, known widely as the Man With No Name. Eastwood’s mysterious character was a stoic figure with a gift for violence and a finely tuned sense of justice and responsibility, more myth than man.

In the early 1970s, Eastwood would move behind the camera to direct his own films, and his work retained the same stoic sensibility. In High Plains Drifter, his second feature, Eastwood once again cast himself as a nameless gunfighter, the Stranger, who appears almost as an apparition, riding out of the desert haze toward the dusty mining community of Lago.

Eastwood’s Stranger is far from a typical upstanding hero: In the first few minutes of the film, he orders a bottle of whiskey, guns down a trio of men who threaten him, and pulls a woman off the street to rape her after she insults him. He’s a spirit of vengeance — literally, in this case, as the film’s final shot strongly implies that he is the resurrected embodiment of a marshal that the town’s leadership conspired to have killed.

The movie serves as a revenge fable in which the town’s hypocrisy is exposed and the marshal’s killers are punished for their misdeeds. And while it is bloody and exhilarating, it offers more than easy genre thrills. Instead, the film complicates the idea of vengeance by casting it as an ugly, cruel force with no regard for common decency or social stability. Invariably, the movie suggests, it leaves one with the bitter taste of regret.

Yet High Plains Drifter doesn’t exactly suggest that vengeance is simply wrong — rather, that it isn’t as satisfying as one might hope, and that it always comes at a high cost. In the movie’s key exchange, as the locals are preparing to kill a band of marauders expected to launch an assault on the town, one of the townspeople asks Eastwood’s Stranger what happens after the bad men are killed. His reply: “Then you live with it.”

Then you live with it could serve as the thematic kicker to any number of Eastwood movies, and maybe to his entire oeuvre. His movies are about deeds and misdeeds, duty and justice, and how both individuals and society must learn to live with the consequences of their actions.

Eastwood’s favored themes have evolved as he’s aged, but they remain remarkably consistent

Eastwood would go on to make dozens more films after High Plains Drifter — from high-octane thrillers and crime films to biographies and historical dramas, along with a number of Westerns, many of which would dwell on similar themes and motifs. More than a decade later, in Pale Rider, he once again cast himself as a nameless avenger who arrives in a small settlement to protect a group of decent villagers from violence and corruption. Like many of his films, it was a meditation on violence and honor, but also on men and masculinity, in which Eastwood appears as wilderness specter — a man in a preacher’s frock who turns out to be remarkably skilled at violence.

Pale Rider doesn’t do much to complicate its portrayal of violence, but it does offer an unusually anonymous and businesslike take on heroism. Eastwood’s unnamed Preacher is the movie’s protagonist, but also a catalyst for the community to take stock of itself and its true identity. His presence brings them together, giving them the strength to fight back. The specifics of his identity are unimportant: When one of the villagers asks who he is, really, Eastwood’s Preacher responds, “Well, it doesn’t really matter, does it?”

The same sense of grave duty and regret infused Eastwood’s 1992 revisionist Western Unforgiven. Arguably his best film, it offers yet another mournful look at the burden of violence and the cost of revenge. Once again, Eastwood stars as a famed gunman in the American West, but this time he’s retired, a reluctant gunslinger all too aware of how killing can weigh on a man’s heart.

Clint Eastwood stands in the rain in Unforgiven
Eastwood’s 1992 revisionist Western Unforgiven references the star’s legacy as an icon of the genre.
Warner Bros.

The referential film serves as a kind of mid-career retrospective for Eastwood, one that takes stock of both the Western as a genre and his own specific role as an action icon. And while it’s too much to call Unforgiven an apology, it is a movie that soundly rejects the thrilling and romantic notion of the big-screen gunslinger, a notion that Eastwood himself helped create.

In the years following Unforgiven, age and self-examination would become new themes of Eastwood’s. In a series of thrillers — Absolute Power, True Crime, Blood Work Eastwood cast himself as an aging professional (a cat burglar, a reporter, and a retired FBI profiler, respectively) caught in a web of crime and violence while trying to calmly finish out his life. Looked at one way, these films are little more than competent adult thrillers. But there’s something ruminative about all of these roles, each of which finds him playing an old man looking back on his sins and successes, judging the world and measuring his life.

Sully features a familiar Eastwood hero: the complicated man wrestling with his legacy

These days, Eastwood works mostly on what might best be described as middlebrow prestige films: the war stories of Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima; a Leonardo DiCaprio–starring biopic, J. Edgar; a drama about age and integration, Gran Torino; a tale of a decorated soldier in Iraq, American Sniper.

Not all of these movies are great cinema: Eastwood’s directorial drabness often drags down his films, and he sometimes struggles to focus his ideas. But the same stoic sense of age and grief and responsibility runs through these films as well. These are movies about complicated men that raise questions about violence and legacy and their weight on the psyche of both an individual and the society that individual represents.

Sully works very much in the same mode: It’s a portrait of an ordinary man who, in a moment, becomes an extraordinary hero — and who nonetheless worries that his legacy will be at stake. Tom Hanks plays “Sully” Sullenberger, the pilot who in January 2009 landed US Airways Flight 1549 in the middle of the Hudson River. The movie is framed by the government’s investigation into the crash, but its middle section is devoted to an extended recreation of the event itself.

Shot in Eastwood’s typical workmanlike style, so sapped of color that it sometimes approaches black and white, the movie excels at capturing both the moment-to-moment drama of ditching the plane and the remarkable calm that Sullenberger and his crew displayed while making life-or-death decisions. The movie’s masterful depiction of the scene is eerily accurate to recordings and reconstructions of the crash, right down to the Sullenberger’s musing about the beauty of the Hudson just before the engines failed.

Tom Hanks lands the plane in Sully
Tom Hanks as Chesley Sullenberger in Sully’s recreation of the Hudson landing.
Warner Bros.

Eastwood’s efficient, matter-of-fact direction sometimes drains big scenes of energy, but here it imbues the sequence with a surprising tension; by underplaying the event, he renders it both real and surreal.

Tom Hanks lands the plane in Sully
Tom Hanks as Chelsey Sullenberger in Sully’s recreation of the Hudson landing.
Warner Bros.

But Eastwood doesn’t just show us the cockpit; he tracks the frightened passengers, the quick-witted rescuers, the air traffic controller who tries to guide the plane toward an airport, as well as the New Yorkers who watched with fear as the plane flew low over the city and then celebrated Sully as a hero for keeping everyone alive. Through it all, Sully shrugs off the idea that he is somehow special: “I don’t feel like a hero,” he tells a TV news interviewer. “I’m just a man doing his job.”

Among other things, Sully functions as a rumination on Eastwood’s decades-long career

Sully isn’t a Western, and Sullenberger isn’t the Man With No Name, but in many ways this is the story Eastwood has always told: the quiet, competent protagonist who brings together the community by taking the difficult but necessary action — and who then wonders about what he’s done.

The movie’s central conflict is between Sully and the government safety inspectors pushing the notion that he could have made it back to a runway, based on simulations that showed he could. In reality, that conflict is exaggerated: Although some simulations did show that the plane might have made a successful return, the government’s safety report judged Sully’s in-flight decisions as correct.

Tom Hanks as Sully window reflection
Sully reflects.
Warner Bros.

But this fictionalized conflict gives the movie the opportunity to mull Sully’s own doubts about his decision and his performance, and to wonder how he will be remembered after four decades as a pilot. As Eastwood told Deadline Hollywood earlier this month, when he first looked into telling the story, “I didn’t know where the conflict was. So I read it and of course you get into it with the transportation board hearings and everything, but I realized that his career as he wanted to end it was suddenly put in the balance.”

It’s hard not to see Sully as a way for Eastwood to reminisce on the end of his own 40-plus-year career, as yet another story about a hero who doesn’t talk much but efficiently gets the job done, and wonders whether he made the right decision. At 86, he’s made his choices, and lived his life — and now he’s trying to live with it.