Clint Eastwood on his latest film Sully

Director Clint Eastwood (above) survived a plane's water-landing in the 1950s himself. His latest movie, Sully, is about a US Airways flight's emergency landing in the Hudson River.
Director Clint Eastwood (above) survived a plane's water-landing in the 1950s himself. His latest movie, Sully, is about a US Airways flight's emergency landing in the Hudson River.PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE

Film-maker Clint Eastwood says he never stops growing up, and he enjoys learning something new every day

Clint Eastwood is a rare bird in Hollywood - not just because of his distinguished double-barrelled career as an actor and film-maker, but also because of his political views, which lean further right than usual for Tinseltown: The star is one of a handful of celebrities to back controversial Republican United States presidential candidate Donald Trump.

And the Oscar-winning director, 86, caused a stir again recently when he defended Mr Trump against accusations of racism in an Esquire magazine interview, blaming the criticisms on the political correctness of what he termed "the kiss-a**" generation, adding: "When I grew up, those things weren't called racist."

A backlash swiftly followed.

So it was no surprise that before a Los Angeles press event for his latest film as a director, Sully - which opens in Singapore tomorrow and recreates the events surrounding a US Airways flight's emergency landing in the Hudson River - publicists sent The Straits Times and other media a list of prohibited topics that included "no questions about politics".

You never stop growing up. If you do, then you're not going to have an enjoyable part of your life.

CLINT EASTWOOD

But an anodyne query about his thoughts on heroism - which in the movie is embodied by pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger (Tom Hanks), the pilot whose quick thinking and skill saved all 155 people on board - sets Eastwood off on a mini-rant about political correctness, obviously a pet peeve.

The star is so mild-mannered and quick to smile, and the questions he gets from reporters so deferential, that no one sees it coming.

The presence of the alwaysaffable Hanks, 60, along with a smiling Aaron Eckhart, the 48-year-old who plays Captain Sullenberger's co-pilot Jeff Skiles and often refers to Eastwood as "the boss", further leavens the proceedings.

Asked how he came to the project, Eastwood - already amassing rave reviews for the film - reveals he sat on the screenplay for almost a week, ignored his assistant's repeated entreaties to read it and instead looked at other scripts in the pile on his desk.

When he finally got round to it, he "just fell in love with it right away" and thought "why wasn't I reading this script instead of the other turkeys?"

Based on Sullenberger's bestselling memoir Highest Duty, the movie presents a different side to the so-called "Miracle on the Hudson" by delving into the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation that followed the incident, which second-guessed Captain Sullenberger's decision to risk a water-landing.

With the aid of several all-too-neat computer simulations, investigators suggested he should have attempted to return to an airport instead - and Eastwood knew this would provide the dramatic tension the story needed.

"My first thought was, 'Well, this was a wonderful event, but who wants to see a whole movie about it? This guy, Sullenberger, did a fabulous job landing the plane, all 155 lived, so where's the conflict?'

"But no, he went through periods of self-doubt inspired by the NTSB hearing and he had to actually prove his decisions. So then it became very dramatic and that's what I'm looking for - the drama."

The star of the iconic Dirty Harry films of the 1970s and 1980s says: "If you have to live through it with him and feel the emotions of the various characters, his family life, how it affects him, it became a very fascinating story. And all I did was just add some dream sequences, so the viewer could see what it would be like if he hadn't made those decisions and get a feel for that in kind of a nightmarish fashion."

Asked why he seems to have grown more willing to experiment with different genres and narrative structures over the years, the film-maker modestly puts it down to experience.

"You know, it's just time," says Eastwood, who picked up Best Director and Best Picture Oscars for both the 1992 western, Unforgiven, and 2004 sports drama, Million Dollar Baby, and whose recent credits include everything from a musical, Jersey Boys (2014), to the highest-grossing war movie of all time, American Sniper (2014).

Perhaps stepping away from acting helped too.

"Maybe it's spending more time behind the camera. I'm not so concerned with films and projects that demand my presence (on camera) and so I'm relieved of that and then I can go ahead and worry about what everyone else is doing," says the star, who has appeared in several films he has directed, including Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby and The Bridges Of Madison County (1995).

He has never stopped learning, though. "You never stop growing up. If you do, then you're not going to have an enjoyable part of your life. I learn something new every day, hopefully, about myself, about other people, other actors.

"And watching other people perform, that's very exciting," says Eastwood, who has been married twice and fathered seven children (including actor Scott Eastwood, 30) with five women.

Then comes the question about heroism and how American culture seems quick to call people heroes these days.

It seems to rouse something in the director, who perks up. "I agree. I think it's different from when I grew up - when you thought of heroes, you thought of somebody like Audie Murphy," he says, referring to a decorated American soldier in World War II. "Or somebody who has done something above and beyond the norm.

"But in this sort of politically correct thing we have now, everybody has to win a prize, you know - all the little boys in the class have to go home with a first-place trophy. And so now we're making everybody (a hero).

"So yeah, the use of the word 'hero' is a little bit overdone.

"But I don't think so in Sully's case," he says of Sullenberger, even though the pilot - now 65 and retired - maintains he was merely doing his job that day. "And I don't think so for somebody who's done a little extra beyond what could be expected", he adds, although he concedes that heroism is, at least in part, "in the eyes of the beholder".

Hanks - the Oscar-winning star of films such as Bridge Of Spies (2015) and Philadelphia (1993) - quickly helps steer the conversation back to safe ground, chiming in to say that pilots like Sully are heroic every day because of the high-stakes nature of their job.

"The textbook definition of a hero is someone who voluntarily puts themselves into harm's way for the betterment of others, and he does that four times a day on a regular work day. Flying high in the sky faster than birds - that shouldn't happen in physics, but he says, 'I can make that happen, I can do that solidly and professionally.' That right there to me says he's to some degree a hero.

"And what's weird about it is if he does his job perfectly, nobody buys him a beer in a bar," says Hanks.

Eckhart (The Dark Knight, 2008) points out that Hollywood is partly responsible for the cultural obsession with heroes.

"America loves a hero, the world loves a hero, and that's why we have Hollywood - we're here to offer that service, we make films about heroes and they're an important part of our childhood and give us courage.

"And if you look at anything that's making money today in the movies, it usually revolves around some sort of superhero, so there's an attraction there because people feel a sense of insecurity in the world and they need a reason to be a hero."

Sully also taps into fears about air disasters, something Eastwood has firsthand experience of.

He survived a 1950s water-landing himself after a military plane he was hitching a ride on crashed into shark-infested seas off Point Reyes, California, forcing him to swim almost 5km to shore.

"I haven't really thought about it much in recent years, but when this project came up, I went back and thought about it a little bit," says Eastwood. "It was a little different because I wasn't with a group of people. I was the lone passenger and didn't have to react off anybody else.

"But by the same token, it gives you an idea of when you get to that moment of, well, this is it - some people live through this and some people don't. That was all I thought about. Fortunately, when we got in the water, I felt much better."

•Sully opens in Singapore tomorrow. 

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 07, 2016, with the headline '86 and still growing up'. Print Edition | Subscribe