I remember the first time I actually saw Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot of US Airways 1549 that was so famously landed on the Hudson River on January 15th, 2009. It was at Superbowl 43 a few weeks afterwards. “Sully” was brought out ahead of the game to be saluted by the crowd. I remember vividly how awkward he looked, clearly not comfortable with being the subject of so much adulation.
Fast forward eight years and we have a biopic of a sort. Usually, a combination of factors – the limited distance from the event, the brevity of the event in question,etc – would lead me to dismiss this film as lifetime movie fare, but look again: none other than Clint Eastwood behind the camera, and Tom Hanks in front of it. Sully could easily have still been a dud, but now a did worth taking some notice of at the very least.
On January 19th 2008, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (Hanks), with copilot Jeffrey Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) successfully lands his passenger jet on the Hudson River after both engines are knocked out in a bird strike. Praised to the heavens by the public and media in the aftermath, Sully deals with his sudden fame, PTSD and the NTSB investigation, which attempts to frame the near-disaster not as a technical catastrophe, but pilot error.
Despite the large amount of potential pitfalls, Eastwood, with Hanks, manages to not only pull off making the story of Sully into an workable movie, it’s actually a really good movie to boot. And the key to that is the director’s approach to the incident itself, which is viewed several times over throughout the course of the film, and only once straight through. We get it from multiple perspectives: from the passengers, from the air stewards, from the emergency rescue teams on the ground and in the water, and, of course, from the two men locked in the cockpit responsible for guiding the plane into the Hudson. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Sully manages to make tension out of a well worn and well noted event, but it does manage to create a heap of interest, in perception and in seeing the reaction of the people involved.
And the other big thing is easily one Thomas Jeffrey Hanks. He doesn’t top his very best work here, but I was struck by the memory of his performance in Captain Phillips, especially those last few minutes, in how he attempts to approach “Sully” here, a man left distressed by the event he has survived, and struggling to deal with the amount of media attention he has garnered. Eastwood frames this brilliantly in the opening scene as Sully suffers a nightmare where he flies the stricken plane straight into a New York City building, as shocking and audience-grabbing an opening as you could hope to get in a project like this.
But it needs Hanks to pull it all together, and this he does throughout, in the PTSD moments, in his awkward reaction to the news glare and his stern no-nonsense approach to the NTSB investigation that attempts to discredit him. One of the films key messages is that Sully himself is no mythical hero as he easily painted, but instead just a man who happened to be in the right place at the right time to prevent a catastrophe: Hanks fulfils the requirements for that part here.
The film also works well as a treatise on sudden celebrity. Sully goes from being a nobody with a safety consultancy business where he is the only employee, to being the man of the hour, meeting Letterman, governors and being trotted out at the Superbowl. The point is made repeatedly that the adulation is as much a reaction to other events – like the ongoing financial collapse and the memory of 9/11 – as it is about what Sully did or didn’t do. But this sudden celebrity, so prevalent in modern culture, leaves Sully feeling bereft and unworthy, unable to fully respond to the adulation heaped upon him, notably summed up in a scene where a hotel manager hugs him when his only request is for some overnight dry-cleaning. And then there is the other side of the coin as well, namely society’s, or maybe just the media’s, need to build up heroes just to tear them down, something we see glimpses of in Sully’s depiction of the NTSB investigation.
This aspect of the film has proved controversial, as it appears to bear very little resemblance to the scope and nature of the actual investigation. The NTSB, headed by Mike O’Malley who I last saw in Justified, are extraordinarily vindictive and nasty in the pursuit of a theory that the “forced water landing” was unnecessary, and more down to pilot error than a faulty aircraft that couldn’t handle a bird hit. Naturally, it will come as no spoiler that they get their comeuppance and are shown as almost childishly incompetent when it comes to putting together a proper record of what actually occurred.
This doesn’t detract from the film, and from a viewpoint that it is still an entertainment medium the movie needs something like this to actually create drama. But I understand completely both the upset that the NTSB may have at the way they are depicted in Sully, and the apparent need to change the names of the investigators. Eastwood, whose politics certainly err towards the anti-regulation libertarian side of things, depicts bureaucracy and red tape as the enemies of the working man here, which is a hardly a surprise, but it’s important to recognise the fictional aspects of a depiction of an event that happened such a short time ago.
I should acknowledge some of the other elements that keep Sully from being the forgettable quasi-biopic that it could have been. Aaron Eckhart plays Skiles very effectively. I haven’t seen him in a while if I’m being honest, and haven’t seen him in anything good in even longer: The Dark Knight seems like an age ago. But he does pretty good here, even if he is very much in Hanks’ shadow. Todd Komarnicki’s script is tight and contained, but this fits the story being told. And Eastwood’s cinematography has matching restraint: he knows when to just let the camera rest on Hanks and he knows how to edit a sequence to make it dramatic, even if he has to do it five times in one 90 minute spell. The pacing of Sully is something to take special note of: a 120 minute version of this story would have been slog for sure, but Eastwood is a confident enough director to limit his ambitions.
There are drawbacks though, most notably the largely wasted Laura Linney, a fine actress who is relegated to the role of a fretting housewife here: she has no scenes outside of her kitchen it seems, where she isn’t on the phone to Sully. The only other female character of note is an NTSB witch hunter who gets embarrassed at the conclusion. It’s not like Eastwood doesn’t have chops when it comes to the portrayal of female characters, so Sully is an unusual miss there. There are also a couple of completely unnecessary flashback scenes to earlier in Sully’s life, namely one looking at his earlier flying experience and another detailing a hazardous landing in his Air Force days, that don’t really add anything, and may have just been a method of getting Sully out to the crucial 90 minute point.
Coming late in the year, Sully is a nice reminder of the kind of excellent film-making that can be made from unlikely material, provided you have the right person behind the camera as well as in front of it. It isn’t perfect, but it is great: a great story, a great central performance, a great script and some great visual direction. Eastwood might not be to everyone’s taste – he certainly has his flaws – but he gets the job done here, with Hanks offering further proof of the calibre of actor he is. Highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Warner Bros. Pictures).