Heroic pilot’s story takes flight in Eastwood’s well executed film
No discussion of Sully, director Clint Eastwood’s new film about East Bay hero Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the commercial airline pilot who, in January, 2009, successfully landed US Airways Flight 1549 in the frigid Hudson River after its engines failed, can begin without first acknowledging that casting Tom Hanks as Sully is a perfect marriage of actor and role. Tom Hanks, the Jimmy Stewart of our day, embodies competence, integrity, and innate decency in a way that makes him a natural fit to play the heroic pilot of the so-called Miracle on the Hudson, in which all 155 people on board survived the emergency water landing. Imagining another actor in the role is almost impossible, and Hanks’s dependable Everyman persona is a large reason Eastwood’s dramatization of the real life event works so well.
Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki (working from Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow’s book Highest Duty) of course face a fundamental problem: how to bring to the screen a story — and one with a happy ending no less — that millions of people still remember well, after watching it unfold on their television screens seven years ago? How can the filmmakers effectively build and sustain narrative interest?
What Eastwood smartly does, then, is to make his film less about the crash itself, and more about its aftermath. The bulk of the picture concerns the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB)’s investigation of the incident, and the PTSD and self-doubt experienced by Sully and co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart). With no other villain intrinsic to the story, the NTSB, which raises questions about whether Sully actually made the right decision, becomes the de facto bad guy. Anna Gunn, Jamey Sheridan, and especially Mike O’Malley play the investigators as rigid, by-the-book bureaucrats whose desk jobs and computer simulations are anathema to Sully and Skiles, who were actually in the air, dealing with a real life, unprecedented situation.
Eastwood actually wisely saves the re-creation of the big moment itself until about a third of the way into the film, and the exacting detail of the take-off from LaGuardia and the engine failure (caused by a bird strike) shortly thereafter may make you think twice about booking your next flight. But this verisimilitude — and the focus Eastwood keeps on the pilots and their decision-making process – and then, later, on the first responders — is what makes the picture work so well. Similar to last year’s Spotlight, which focused on journalists doing their jobs (and doing them well), and not on their personal lives, Sully proves itself to be a terrific picture about the minute-to-minute actions of all involved with a dire aviation emergency. We see not just the pilots and flight attendants manage the situation with precise efficiency, but also the air traffic control staff and all the emergency personnel on the ground, and we watch and marvel as they perform their duties with calm competence and utter professionalism.
Unlike a film like Flight, a plane crash movie that focused on the pilot’s bad behavior prior to the crash, we really never know anything much about Sully (or Skiles, who is even more of a blank slate) besides a brief flashback to Sully’s early aviator and Air Force days. While some may wish for more back story, that’s not what Eastwood is going for here, and that choice is actually is what makes his film work so well: concentrating on the inherent drama of a specific moment is compelling enough.
Indeed, Eastwood makes only a few minor missteps. While most of the plane’s passengers are interchangeable, Eastwood does pause to show us a father and two sons scrambling at the last minute to board Flight #1549 so they can make a golf vacation in Charlotte, the plane’s destination. Whether this mad dash to the gate actually happened in real life or was dramatic license on the part of the filmmakers, it’s exceedingly unnecessary, and feels contrived and clichéd. Similarly, a scene in which Sully, ruminating on the landing and the investigation, downs a quick drink in a Manhattan bar and leaves a twenty, much to the bartender’s chagrin, who wanted to treat the hero, feels heavy-handed and amateurish on the part of the screenwriter, who wrote it, and the director, who allowed it. We already have more than enough sense of Sully’s inborn strong moral character before this scene; we don’t need to be hit over the head with such petty signs of his virtue.
And, unfortunately, Laura Linney, a superb actress cast in one of the few female roles, is completely wasted in a small part that gives her nothing to do but worry and fret, fret and worry, and worry and fret some more. She’s relegated to being the stalwart wife back home, frowning through telephone calls with Sully. Why an actress of her caliber took this role is a bit of a puzzle, but maybe she was taken enough with Sully’s story to want to be a part of it.
Finally, though, on that “back home” note: Sully’s hometown, or even his home state, is never once mentioned in the movie, but local viewers may remember that the Sullenberger family hailed from Danville. When we see Lorrie Sullenberger (Linney) in the family home, it actually looks like an East Bay suburban house — both its interior and exterior shots — so credit goes to Eastwood for some authenticity there.
And while some may argue that it might be nice to see Hanks branch out and play a serial killer some time soon, his performance here, as a modest, hard working man who simply insists he was just doing his job, is meaningful and sharp enough to win over even the most cynical among us. As the tumultuous year of 2016 winds down, there’s nothing wrong with a little cinematic uplift that allows us to remember there are indeed still honorable and brave people in the world who care about one another and will look out for each other. And their stories deserve to be told, too.
Sully opens today at Bay Area theaters.