Starring: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney, Anna Gunn, Autumn Reeser, Mike O' Malley, Jamey Sheridan, Sam Huntington, Katie Couric, Mike Rapaport
Running Time: 96 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
There are some noticeable hurdles in the way of cinematically adapting the real life story of Chelsey "Sully" Sullenberger, who on January 15, 2009, successfully pulled off an emergency landing of US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River, in which all 155 passengers and crew survived. For one, the admittedly remarkable event itself lasted all of about ten minutes, and while many lives were most definitely in jeopardy, this story has as clear cut and happy an ending as it gets. There's also no antagonist to speak of, and as much as the media rightfully built Sully up as a hero, he's a low-key, introverted guy you wouldn't expect translating to the big screen as a charismatic action savior capable of carrying a movie.
You have to wonder how director Clint Eastwood does it, essentially stretching a human interest story that captivated the public for a couple of weeks into an over 90-minute feature film. Besides being oddly matched for the material, you'd think there wouldn't be enough there for him to dramatically sink his teeth into. And yet it's fun watching all the ways that he tries and just how successful he is at dodging so many of those potential roadblocks.
Sully's still somewhat slight and fairly predictable, but when it ended I was convinced we got as strong a film as we possibly could considering the subject at hand. Initially, Eastwood wisely shifts the focus away from nuts and bolts of the situation in favor of making this about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It's a curious choice, as is his decision to very broadly depict a "bad guys" in a story in which we were sure none existed. How accurate this all is will be up for debate as Eastwood goes pretty far in pumping up the conflict with what seems like an over-the-top investigation considering the circumstances. What we do know is how much our perception is wrapped up in the fact that a dialed down Tom Hanks is playing the title role, internally unraveling with each new development. Unsurprisingly, he holds this all together, turning the actual subject's limitations as an intriguing movie character into strengths audiences can rally behind.
The film opens not with that flight, but its aftermath, as Captain Sullenberger (Hanks) must face a barrage of mostly positive media attention about his split second decision to make an emergency water landing after a flock of birds disabled both engines, making any kind of runway approach impossible. Unfortunately, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) doesn't see it that way and are determined to follow through on their investigation into whether Sully, along with co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), made the right call under what could best be called extremely unusual circumstances. When doubt arises regarding the condition of the engines and their possibility of making it to one of the two airports, Sully starts mentally unraveling, as most would under the intense microscope of this investigation.
Between abbreviated, but emotional late night phone calls with his wife Lorraine (Laura Linney) and panic over the impending hearing and frequent TV appearances, Sully not only starts to doubt himself, but his abilities as a pilot. And he suffers silently through all this while still maintaining a calm, stoic facade for the public, who now claim him as their hero. It's a role he's entirely uncomfortable with both as a person and as a pilot with 40 years of experience who feels on that day, like any other, he was doing his job. Now clearly at his breaking point, he wants nothing more than to just quietly go back to it.
It's to Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki's credit that the script (adapted from Sully's autobiography, Highest Duty) is filled with tiny details we didn't know or simply weren't privy to. That there's actually a co-pilot for one. Throughout all the media coverage of the incident, it's tough to recall his name even being mentioned, but here Skiles is played really well by Aaron Eckhart and his relationship to Sully is defined entirely through this ordeal. They're not exactly friends, but what begins as a cordial, if somewhat prickly professional rapport between co-workers, evolves into strong bond following the incident and ensuing investigation. If anything, it's Sully who must lean on his more charismatic co-pilot as the newly anointed celebrity psychologically struggles under the bright lights during interviews with Katie Couric and David Letterman.
Presenting most of the events out of chronological order is kind of a neat angle Eastwood takes in that it more easily allows him to put the focus where it needs to be while distracting audiences who think they know the whole story. Interspersing brief flashbacks of Sully's history as a pilot, we're eventually led into the day of take-off, which is by far the most suspenseful, excitingly directed portion of the film and the section fewest will have any complaints about. We get to know some of the passengers, who within minutes must face what seemed at the time to be certain death, while Sully makes that split-second decision in the cockpit that saves their lives. But more intriguing than that is the protocol following the water landing and how the passengers were somehow safely evacuated in the midst of utter chaos. Besides miraculously landing the plane, Sully also played a key role in that, more concerned with the well-being of the passengers than his own safety or the avalanche of criticism coming his way.
The most problematic aspect is the depiction of this NTSB inquiry, and while we'll never know the true extent of its depth, it's clearly beefed up for effect in the script, which is fine. Still, it can't help but feel manufactured when you consider the fact that the media would absolutely eviscerate this NTSB board if they even came close to going after Sully like they do here. That's especially true when you consider the film's implication that his job, marriage and home were in serious jeopardy due to the potential findings. Stopping just short of depicting them as mustache-twirling villains, this committee of basically two (played by Anna Gunn and Mike O' Malley) are there to question every decision Sully made in flight while completely removing the human element from the equation.
Of course, this culminates in a hearing that plays out very "Hollywood," during which the embattled pilot must defend himself against one-sided allegations, enabling the doubters to see the incident from various perspectives before realizing what we've known all along: He did the right thing. No big revelation there. But Eastwood holds our attention anyway, thanks mostly to the performances of the actors and the gripping recreation of events that preceded it.
The film just kind of stops as opposed to conclusively ending, but thankfully most of that hearing, as over-the-top as it is, is a clever device in circumventing a story that didn't exactly need retelling. Was Tom Hanks the right actor for the role? There are no "right" choices for the role, just different ones, and the selection of Hanks suggests a specific vision for the material that Eastwood mostly follows through on. Sully, the real person and character, is a likable "everyman" so the casting is a no-brainer in that sense, even if it isn't necessarily an inspired, outside the box choice. Hanks wisely avoids playing him as "Mr. Nice Guy," as he's internally tormented and wrestling with his conscience through much of this.
While there wasn't a lot to work with here, Eastwood still manages to milk everything he can from it. And it's at least a lot tidier and more straightforward than his Oscar-nominated American Sniper, which received significantly greater praise despite a myriad of issues. Sully doesn't have those problems, and even if it doesn't exactly linger in the mind long after the final credits have rolled, Eastwood and Hanks prove they're capable of engaging us with a story few thought could successfully be transferred to the big screen.