In today's polarized society there are opposing sides to literally everything. Even an act of unquestioned heroism can be seen as miraculous by some, and the subject of intense scrutiny by others...especially when money is involved. Most remember the January 15th 2009 "Miracle on the Hudson" event when Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger landed disabled US Airways Flight 1549 on the icy Hudson River, saving all 155 lives on board. It was an act of pure heroism and technical skill, with the pilot treated as such by adoring New Yorkers eager for a feel-good story. But that was only just a small part of the story. The entirety of it, which isn't always so nice, is told by Clint Eastwood with emotional precision worthy of Sully's remarkable feat.
That the sight of a plane hurtling along the New York City skyline can be more than just a stark reminder of past tragedies is just part of what Eastwood and star Tom Hanks are able to accomplish. Sully is about a man grappling with fame and guilt, but it's also about pride, an intense pride in one's chosen profession. As usual Eastwood employs an economical, reserved approach but he doesn't skimp on the human emotions that send Sully soaring.
Get it out of your head that this is just a truer version of Denzel Washington's film, Flight. It isn't. The internal conflict within Sully (Hanks) isn't about lies he's told or a mountain of personal demons. Sully is a far more honorable and genuine person than Washington's character ever was. The film begins with a spectacular sequence recreating events in the cockpit during that fateful day. As the plane hovers dangerously low after losing both engines, we expect the happy ending we all know to have occurred. Instead it's a nightmare, and Sully jerks awake in sheer terror. He may have saved 155 people that day, but Sully doesn't feel like a hero. This is despite countless news reports (apparently running on a 24-hour loop) and people praising him on the street. So why can't he just accept the love and move on? Well, it's tough to feel like a hero when your every action is being questioned to the kind of exacting detail that can't be afforded in an unprecedented emergency situation.
So this isn't a Sully Sullenberger biopic per se, and it's not a simple recreation of the events leading up to the "Miracle". It's very specifically about Sully and co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) being grilled for their decision making during the 208 seconds after a flock of birds crippled the plane’s engines. The National Transportation Safety Board, interviewing on behalf of the airlines and their insurers, don't necessarily belief that a forced water landing was the way to go. Sully may have saved everyone on board but to those who are only concerned with the financial impacts of his decision, he needs to be made to look reckless and a danger to all.
There are probably a good many people who have no idea of everything Sully went through after that day, and for them this story will be a shock. It should be, and since the screenplay was adapted by Sully's memoir the incredulous nature of it all is front and center. Tom Hanks may not look much like Sully despite attempts to change that, but he captures the man's compassion and unpretentious demeanor. This is another tour-de-force performance for Hanks in a career full of them. It seems like he's been a little unappreciated lately but Sully could be the movie to change all of that. He captures Sully's coolness under pressure, and it's kind of amazing how relaxed he and Skiles are as the events are unfolding. It could be their collective years of training, or it could be recognition they are the only ones capable of getting everyone home alive. Keeping a clear head would seem to be the smart thing to do. Through everything he endures, Sully maintains a level of dignity in what he did, and we see that feeling echoed in the other service professionals who aided in the watery rescue. The seaman, the rescue workers, the flight staff, the air traffic controllers...all showed the utmost professionalism and the film takes time to honor them and their part.
We don't necessarily think of Eastwood as a big visual effects guy, but he's shown that in certain situations he has a real knack for it. Remember that incredible, devastating tsunami scene in Hereafter? Heck, do you remember Hereafter at all? Anyway, the depictions of the landing is harrowing stuff, thrusting you right into the cockpit or into those tense moments in the cabin. "Brace brace brace, head down, stay down!", the voices of the flight attendants barely cracking the roar of the plane's rapid descent. The full extent of what really happened is smartly teased from multiple perspectives throughout, until the final, definitive version arrives at a key moment. The sequence itself is breath-taking. The setting it's revealed in, that of a cold, sterile NTSB hearing, is less so. In fact, the entire investigation is pretty flat and predictable, capped off by the kind of "brush off" ending Eastwood seems to prefer. Nothing wrong with a big flourish to send the folks home happy, Clint!
Sully is ultimately about people, and that human quality that makes us more than just numbers in a ledger or graphics in a computer simulation. That Eastwood is able to tell a story so big in a tight 96-minute package and do it so effortlessly is a true achievement. Some might even call it a miracle.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5