Clint Eastwood is a director who is masterful at orchestrating deeply powerful movie moments. From the dramatic standoffs in Unforgiven to the highly charged combat scenes in the controversial American Sniper, Eastwood is exceptional at delivering thrilling cinema. His tension-building skills are on full display in Sully, the dramatic retelling of the real life 2009 “Miracle on the Hudson.” It’s a story that’s tailor-made for a movie: US Airways pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger landed his airbus A-320 on the Hudson River when a flock of geese flew into the plane, disabling both engines. He and First Officer Jeffery Skiles performed this ‘miracle’ without losing a single passenger or crew member.
Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki revisit the crash multiple times, interweaving it with scenes of the National Transportation Safety Board investigation in the weeks following the unbelievable landing. It’s these scenes of the investigation that threaten to bring the movie down. But Sully stays aloft, delivering a tense, powerful, and ultimately uplifting study of quiet heroism.
In many ways, Chesley Sullenberger is Clint Eastwood’s perfect movie hero. A favorite preoccupation of the actor-turned-director is the unassuming everyman who does extraordinary things. Eastwood explores these kinds of men in movies like Million Dollar Baby, Flags of Our Fathers, American Sniper, and now in Sully. Sniper arrived with a healthy dose of controversy, not the least of which was the reaction to the movie’s oversimplification of good and evil, best represented by the “Wolves, Sheep, and Sheepdogs” scene early in the film.
Sully also opened in theaters with controversy trailing behind it, albeit far less than that for American Sniper. The main gripe is, again, oversimplification. This time the accusers are the members of the NTSB who headed the actual investigation in the aftermath of the “Miracle on the Hudson.” They object to the way they are portrayed in the film as out to get Sully, hungry to pin blame on the pilot for choosing to land in the river when multiple simulations show that he could have safely turned the aircraft around and landed at the airport before any danger of a crash.
Supporting those NTSB members, in his own quiet way, is Eastwood’s hero himself. Sullenberger acted as an advisor on the film, and Tom Hanks – who plays the captain in the film – spoke about changes to the script that the real life hero requested. An early draft included the real names of the investigators but Sullenberger wanted the names changed, because he himself felt the movie treated those men and women unfairly. Hanks quotes Sully as saying, “These are people who are not prosecutors. They are doing a very important job, and if, for editorial purposes, we want to make it more of a prosecutorial process, it ain’t fair to them.”
Whether or not it’s enough to simply change the names of real life people while still portraying their actions as less than virtuous is debatable. Either way, from a purely dramatic sense, the way these investigative scenes function is a major weakness of Sully. Like the lead investigator, portrayed in the movie by Mike O’Malley, asking Sully in rapid fire fashion when the last time the pilot consumed alcohol was, how much sleep he got the night before the crash, and if he has any problems at home. This aggressive style makes the inquiry seem like a witch hunt. It’s white hat vs. black hat. The complete lack of nuance pushes Sully into the realm of Hallmark Channel TV movie melodrama.
Komarnicki and Eastwood really do oversimplify the goals and responsibilities of a governmental agency investigation in the wake of such a crash. That simplification is even more evident in the climax of the movie, when Sully makes his case for why the flight simulations are not accurate representations of the actual crash. I won’t spoil the actual outcome; it’s enough to point out the existence of the clichéd scene of a government hearing where someone begins a teary speech with “I just want to say…”
Those missteps in the script stand in stark contrast to the scenes of the actual crash. Even though those 208 seconds are seen at least a half dozen times throughout the 96 minutes of the film, not one frame ever loses any of its chilling impact. Particularly striking are the moments before the plane hits the water when the flight attendants yell in unison to the passengers, “Brace! Brace! Brace! Heads down! Stay down!” There is also a moment when several office workers spot the plane quickly descending against the backdrop of the Manhattan skyline, and stand at their high-rise windows with mouths agape. It’s a fleeting few seconds, but it’s easy to imagine what must have been going through their post-9/11 imaginations.
Tom Hanks and Aaron Eckhart are excellent as Sully and First Officer Skiles, respectively. Their behavior during the incident convey the preternatural presence of mind that their real life counterparts must have exhibited during the ordeal. Hanks also delivers a beautifully understated rendering of the post-traumatic emotions going through such an ordeal must cause.
On a technical level, the entire sound department on Sully deserves special praise. The roaring and jolting sound of the crash stands in direct opposition to the flight simulations that the NTSB runs during their investigation. Those scenes are drained almost completely of any bass, giving the simulations an antiseptic quality. It’s the filmmakers’ effective way of helping their protagonist make his case about the difference between a recreation and the pandemonium of the actual event. It’s a good example of a group of filmmakers using their craft to make a point. Eastwood and his crew took the harrowing events of January 15th, 2009 to create some indelible cinematic images. They told an uplifting tale of heroism and hope, things that seem to be in short supply.
Why it got 4 stars:
- Sully is well paced, strongly acted, and tightly scripted drama. Yes, some of that script veers into melodrama, but the overall effect is a success.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- I completely forgot to mention Laura Linney at all in the main review. She plays Lorraine Sullenberger, Sully's wife. The few moments she's in the film don't really amount to much. The phone conversations between the married couple (he is stuck in New York for the investigation and she is at home with the kids) feel more like a distraction from the actual movie rather than giving any meaningful insight into the Sullenberger's relationship.
- It is not lost on me that the hero in question here is an old white guy. That's part of the reason I said he was the perfect hero for an Eastwood movie.
- If all I were interested in was laughs, I would have posted a one sentence review for Sully: Worst Monsters, Inc. spin-off ever!