Sully is a Box Office Hero for Clint Eastwood and Tom Hanks

By  · Published on September 12th, 2016

Box Office

The 86-year-old filmmaker just had his best opening weekend ever.

Clint Eastwood is making American movie-going great again. I don’t mean he’s pulling the dwindling domestic box office out of the gutter all on his own – or even with the help of true movie star Tom Hanks. I mean specifically for a certain kind of American movie, he’s delivering hits out of material not seen so successful since the 1940s.

Eastwood isn’t quite Frank Capra, whom he’s old enough to have known and whose politics he’s relatively in line with as the rare modern Hollywood conservative. But his latest, Sully, could be seen as a loose Meet John Doe update with its everyman protagonist a sudden media sensation who then has to defend himself when scrutiny washes in with the fame.

While Meet John Doe wasn’t actually one of Capra’s big hits, Sully is Eastwood’s biggest yet in terms of its opening. Sort of. With a better-than-expected $35m (via Box Office Mojo), it is in fact literally the director’s best debut in all his 45 years working behind the camera, even with figures adjusted for inflation. However, his last movie, American Sniper, began in limited release, and when it went wide, it did so to $89m.

And when 2009’s Gran Torino went wider after a month in relatively few theaters, it shot up to a comparable $29m ($34m adjusted). The three represent what the people want right now, specifically from Eastwood. Two of them are about recent “Real American Heroes,” the other a pretty apt movie for half of the country looking to Donald Trump to lead us.

Sully leans a lot less conservative than the others, though the villain of the film is a bureaucratic government agency. To say it’s Eastwood’s best movie in a decade isn’t really saying much, but it also might be his most feel-good effort since – well, maybe ever. It’s not cranky or about people in pain, and nobody dies. At 86, Eastwood almost seems to have finally gone soft.

To further make Sully reminiscent of Capra, its title subject is played by Hanks, an actor who has long been considered the modern day James Stewart or Gary Cooper (the star of Meet John Doe). The movie’s opening is surprisingly one of his best, as well. Without adjusting for inflation, it falls beneath his first two installments as Robert Langdon plus Toy Story 3.

Performer of the Year: Tom Hanks

With adjustment, it drops in rank pretty substantially, though outside of those three aforementioned titles, $36m is still Hanks’s best start since 2002’s Catch Me If You Can. Or 2000’s Cast Away, if you’re looking just at titles where he’s the lead. Perhaps audiences just really like to watch him survive plane crashes?

That’s actually not likely far off from what appealed to a chunk of the Sully audience over the weekend. The world is crazy now, and it was pretty awful in 2009 when Captain Sullenberger made his “Miracle on the Hudson” water landing. Compared to the box office for violent superheroes and their apocalyptic stakes, he may not be the hero we all want, but he is the hero we all need. Especially because he believes he was just doing his job.

In my negative-leaning review, I claim it doesn’t make for a good movie, but there is something to the idea that a near lack of stakes in the complete narrative arc of Sully is an appropriate antithesis to the world-ending stuff we see in hero’s tales these days. Also, after Sullenberger’s main attraction feat, his stakes are pretty relatable to a general audience.

Maybe I was wrong about it having an unsatisfying final act, because people weren’t just drawn to Sully, those who went to see it also really liked it. Regular folks told me so, and the CinemaScore grade it received is an A. I would have thought it was more about the plane sequences staying in people’s minds better, like how most critics accepted those parts as enough to give it a pass. But from what I hear from people, they think the non-plane stuff is good, too.

Everything just sort of worked out for the movie, which a week ago was projected to make only between $22–25m. And it’s probably going to have legs and should wind up with at least $100m, especially if there’s any awards buzz (I think it still has no chances there). I’ll say this much: if you are going to see it, the plane stuff really is big screen worthy if not necessary.

So we can stop underestimating Hanks, even if his last movie, A Hologram for the King, only made $4m total. And ignoring the fact that his next, Inferno, will probably do business on par with the other two Langdon movies (though this is the year where sequels die hard). He really is a rare movie star, albeit mostly with likable and strong characters in upbeat films.

6 Filmmaking Tips From Clint Eastwood

As for Eastwood, he should stick to depicting true stories about people who were recently in the news – his period biopics aren’t as successful – and maybe were relatable everyday heroes. If he’s still doing The Ballad of Richard Jewell, that should work, as it’s similarly about a regular guy who saved the day only to be wrongfully accused of being the very opposite of a hero. Keep American movies great!

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.