It was inescapable news in 2009: a commercial airplane was forced to make an emergency landing in the Hudson River, mere minutes after takeoff from LaGuardia airport, and somehow, miraculously, all 155 people on board survived. The odds of it happening are unfathomably bad, and the plane’s pilot, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger became a national celebrity and a quick hero. Great. Did it need a movie made out of it? I thought it was such a strange and superfluous topic for a movie, much less one directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Tom Hanks. But Sully is much more compelling than a regurgitation of everything you saw on the news.
As great a director as I think Eastwood is, it’s been a long time since a movie by him has moved me in any real way. He’s turned almost exclusively to schmaltz or “Real American Hero” jingoism, so I was bracing for that kind of posturing here. However, I was happy to find out that, save a couple of moments, Sully very much adopts the temperament of its protagonist: even-keeled, thoughtful, quiet, and uninterested in any “heroic” notions.
The film begins shortly after the events of the crash, with Sullenberger (Hanks) having nightmares of crashing the plane into the heart of New York City. He and his copilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) have to sit before a committee (made of up of the likes of Mike O’Malley, Anna Gunn, and Jamey Sheridan) and defend their actions that led to the plane going down in the Hudson River. The conjecture is that Sullenberger and Skiles had time and opportunity to land safely back at LaGuardia or one of the neighboring New Jersey airports but chose to risk a water landing, which almost never ends well. The pilots are confident in their actions outwardly, but the film spends a lot of time with Sully worrying if he did the right thing while the news media praises him up and down.
We jump back and forth in time frequently, going to the morning of the flight, meeting briefly some of the passengers aboard to get an idea of their story, the air traffic controller who is on the radio with Sully, and some of the rescue workers who had to respond quickly so the survivors didn’t freeze to death on the frigid New York river in January. We also see the crash from three different perspectives in three separate, incredibly tense instances, while also catching the POV of people watching the plane from their offices. There are a couple brief flashbacks to Sullenberger’s younger days, becoming a pilot at the age of 16 and then flying a fighter jet and making a harrowing landing. And, for color and context, he speaks to his wife (Laura Linney) on the phone and the pair discuss financial problems and the possible end of both his flying career and his newly hatched safety instruction business.
Sully teeters at times into the everybody-loves-the-main-character territory of far too many biopics, especially those about people who are still alive. However, it never gets out of hand since the story has a quick 95-minute runtime. There is almost no fat, but we get to spend time with Sully wrestling with whether or not the decision he made could have been avoided. Yes, the outcome was good, and his skills at landing safely were unmatched, but could it have been avoided altogether? Hanks underplays everything in the best way. We sense his trepidation but it never betrays the real man’s cool resolve. Preternaturally calm.
It was a real surprise how well constructed and compelling the movie is, and it proves, if nothing else, that in the right hands, any story can be a good movie.
Image: Warner Bros.