A Well-Told Heroic Story
Director Clint Eastwood faces a tough task in attempting to bring to life the heroic story of American pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger who, back in 2009, safely landed his US Airways plane in the Hudson River after both engines failed following a bird strike. After all, the event’s fortunate outcome -- including the fate of the 155 passengers and crew on board -- is still fresh in our memories, having played out on live TV as the actual events took place. What more is there for us to know?
Rather than roll out his story as a linear point-A-to-point-B recreation of the actual events, Eastwood puts the focus on Captain Sullenberger (Tom Hanks), first-mate Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), the cabin crew, and all the rescuers and first responders who came to the aid of the stricken airship. All heroes. Eastwood has always been about depicting true heroes who live by a strict code of conduct. One need only look as far back as Million Dollar Baby, Gran Torino, and American Sniper to realize that a strong sense of honesty and responsibility almost always forms the foundation of his lead characters. Eastwood certainly gets those traits with Sullenberger et al, and successfully brings those traits to life in Sully. He has us once again standing and cheering as the well-known events unfold before us.
For those who live under a rock, or simply don’t remember, US Airways flight 1549 was struck by a flock of Canadian Geese seconds after takeoff from New York’s LaGuardia Airport. Left with virtually no engine power and very few options, Captain Sullenberger called upon his 40 years of flying experience and decided to land the plane into the Hudson River. The landing was near with all 155 passengers surviving with minimal injuries. As a result, the public was rewarded with a much-needed American hero to draw our attention from news-hoarding wars raging in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Eastwood’s visual depiction of the crash is a truly spectacular thing to watch. In fact we’re witness to the tragedy from many different angles, some often interspersed with Sullenberger’s nightmare-driven visions of alternate outcomes. The flight, which lasted a mere six minutes, is dissected and deconstructed in meticulous detail, and is creatively interwoven into many events of Sully’s background as an Air Force pilot, including a crisis involving a military jet he was piloting.
Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki spend a lot of time examining Sullenberger’s internal mental anguish. In fact, the opening credits have barely finished rolling as we watch a low-flying, disabled aircraft heading into the buildings of Manhattan. We’re suddenly made aware that this is only a nightmare that often plagues Sullenberger’s idle thoughts. One of many, as he is now facing an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board which is of the mindset that the pilots could have returned the plane safely to a nearby airport. Much of the film’s remaining runtime involves behind-the-scenes events that unfolded during the NTSB investigation which was, apparently, somewhat of a witch hunt as Sullenberger and Skiles came under intense scrutiny for their actions.
But Eastwood is all about heroes, and Hanks’ measured performance of an honest, humble everyman simply doing the best he could under extreme circumstances, elevates the entire experience. It also helps that the actor seems already widely considered the standard-bearer of American heroism anyway. He’s perfectly cast here and never lets the project down. Eckhart has little to do other than share in the terror and later accept the accolades while looking the part with a big bushy mustache, while Laura Linney is under-used as Sullenberger’s frenzied housewife (only seen on the other end of concerned phone calls).
Sully shouldn’t work, but it does. With the actual events surrounding the tragedy and the images of the dozens of passengers huddled on the plane’s wings as it floated down the river still etched in our mind’s eyes, there’s really nothing new to tell. But well-told hero stories always work, and Eastwood’s rather straightforward telling plays nicely against the equally understated grace and humility of the film’s titular character. Plus, it always helps to have a diabolical villain pulling at the other end, and the United States government will always nail that role.
Even at a brisk 95 minutes, Sully occasionally feels padded, as if to fill its feature-length runtime with decisions that had to be made in only 208 seconds. Also some of the crash’s impact is stolen as we watch it from several different angles throughout the film before the harrowing money shot we view from inside the frantic cabin. But there’s no denying the film’s genuine crowd-pleasing appeal as we learn that ordinary people can do extraordinary things… even when under pressure. Eastwood has never been a man of subtlety and is often a bit too on the nose with what he’s trying to say, but his message in Sully -- that as long as we all do our jobs and do them well, there’s no telling what we can accomplish -- rings true and is something we can all use about now.
(Released by Warner Bros. and rated “PG-13” for some peril and brief strong language.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.