Director Clint Eastwood’s new drama Sully takes us back to a time when every so often the national media had reasons to write headlines about good things that happened, even if meanwhile behind the scenes everything later fell apart, but the follow-up headlines were such dull sequels to the original inspiring pieces that they were relegated to the back section of the newspaper after the obituaries and sharing a page with The Family Circus, which no one reads and so everyone would assume that was that And They All Lived Happily Ever After. It’s also one of those early-bird Oscar hopefuls that the major studios release in autumn so they can be rushed to convenient home video in time for AMPAS voters to catch them at their leisure at home, rather than being expected or remotely willing to visit their local theater twenty or thirty times over the course of the voting season so they can get honestly informed about their choices. Then again, should Oscar voters be any more informed than those of us who vote in every political election? Are we hypocrites for wishing Hollywood always aimed for high standards of integrity than we do when it comes to naming the winners in their own history books? I like to think if Sully himself were an actor, he’d be disgusted about the whole process and deliver a great speech to shame them all into being more scrupulous film fans, and then maybe go on to run for President, because you know he’d do it sincerely and not as a promotional precursor to his forthcoming “SullyTV” project. Sully’s noble like that, but good luck getting him to admit it.
Short version for the unfamiliar: Academy Award Winner Tom Hanks is famed pilot Chesley Sullenberger, who soared into the American consciousness in January 2009. When flocks of angry birds flew at their passenger jet and broke both engines, he and copilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart, equally humble in heroics) realized they couldn’t reach any nearby airports in time and saved 150 lives by landing in the middle of the Hudson River. A few folks aboard are wounded, but no one dies, Sully’s a hero, the day is saved, everything’s wonderful in Manhattan, and the movie is only fifteen minutes long.
One little problem postpones The End: the National Transportation Safety Board decides to conduct an investigation into Our Heroes’ impressive stunt and determine through some combination of computers and bureaucracy if there might have been more cost-effective ways of saving the day — e.g., returning to LaGuardia, landing at Newark, plowing into an abandoned warehouse, cruising down a nearly empty interstate from some other movie, etc. The Powers That Be really want to know: did their boys have to wreck the plane in the river like they did? Sure, the customers were basically safe, but planes aren’t cheap and neither is plane insurance, so losing one is such a bummer and it sure would be a shame if they could find someone to blame for it.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Bureaucrats and peers in differing modes of helpfulness include Breaking Bad‘s Anna Gunn, comedian Mike O’Malley, Martin Donovan (nearly reprising himself from Ant-Man), Jamey Sheridan (Arrow), and Holt McCallany, who’s played Lead Henchmen in roughly seven hundred other films I’ve seen. Recognizable passengers include Autumn Reeser (The OC) and Sam Huntington (a Jimmy Olsen!). Occasional comedy star Michael Rapaport has one scene as a well-meaning bartender. With slightly more scenes, three-time Academy Award Nominee Laura Linney is the Concerned Wife.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? All the second-guessing, Monday-morning piloting, and complex computer simulations in the world are no substitute for decades of on-the-job piloting experience, thorough firsthand knowledge of flight procedures and safety protocols, comprehensive calculating skills, and coworkers who bring and engender equal amounts of trust and competency. The NTSB claim an impartial stance while they investigate Sully’s integrity and decision-making processes, but they probe and prod and distance themselves in ways that confuse and offend their de facto defendant. They’re the ultimate meddling authorities who don’t know what it’s like out there in the real world where life and death can be a mere heartbeat away and just one wrong move can jeopardizes hundreds and it takes a real man behind the stick to do what needs to be done, and so on and so forth.
Despite their enviable skill sets and backbone, even the pros can get rattled. In several scenes Sully has flashbacks not to the astonishing landing itself, but to the disasters that might have been if he and Skiles had made different choices. Occasional errant stares through various windows induce disturbing visions of Flight 1549 crashing into whatever skyscrapers are in his line of sight, miniature 9/11 sequels that drive up the visual effects budget while showing us Sully was, at his heart in some respects, an ordinary guy who hasn’t narrowly escaped certain death dozens of times like John McClane. Intense situations can haunt a man.
The two pilots aren’t the film’s only celebrated heroes. Considerable focus is brought to the nearby ferrymen, Coast Guard officers, dock workers, and other boaters who sped out to the crash site in mere minutes and helped carry all the passengers and crew to shore, effectively finishing the job our aerodynamic duo started. To an extent these sequences share that romanticized vibe of New York City brotherhood we’ve seen in the better Spider-Man films, with the added bonus that this is what real New Yorkers and New Jerseyans actually did.
Nitpicking? Sully pads its concise 96-minute running time by taking us through those fateful 208 seconds at least three full times from varying technical perspectives, not including a few partial simulations that end abruptly and poorly. In a sense we’re leaning into the true NTSB review perspective, in that we have to go through the same story again and again. In another sense it reminded me of a scene from the old animated show The Critic, in which Oliver Stone’s JFK is jokingly depicted as 3½ hours of Kevin Costner repeating, “Back and to the left. Back and to the left. Back and to the left. Back and to the left. Back and to the left.” The repetition adds a smidgen, not a bunch.
The NTSB’s antagonism, and thereby the film’s preferred source of conflict, depends heavily on the notion that the professional technicians who invented and run the NTSB’s flight simulators don’t understand how to simulate. The climactic quasi-court-hearing scene has Sully triumphing over The MAN by literally telling them how to do their job better. They finally take his word on something, and within minutes his reputation is saved. It’s meant to highlight how crucial job experience can be in times of crisis, but at a certain level the takeaway is more like “Old Man Yells at Computer Users”.
So what’s to like? In the kind of understated performance he does best, Tom Hanks honors Sullenberger himself as level-headed and quick-thinking when lives are on the line, but otherwise an aging average Joe who loves his family and doesn’t understand why they can’t just let him get back to work. Together with Eckhart, matching Hanks’ surety with every shared scene, they’re just two working-class guys doing their job, making informed judgment calls based on their combined decades of job experience, and no contrived villainy can take away their dignity or humility.
This may or may not be a weird thing to admit, but I’ve almost come to like composer Clint Eastwood more than director Clint Eastwood. Not that I haven’t enjoyed several of his films, but his thoughtful piano work is a good match for his measured storytelling approach and appeals to me more as I’m getting old and my tastes are adjusting in ways I could never predict and am kind of at a loss to explain.
How about those end credits? There’s no scene after the Sully end credits, but the earlier names and departments are surrounded by scenes from a real-life reunion at an airplane hangar held for Sully, many of his passengers from that flight, and Lorraine Sullenberger, the original Concerned Wife herself, who expresses her deep appreciation of their families’ ongoing Christmas card exchanges, human connections made through the miracle they survived together.
If you’ve seen the movie and are interested in learning more about Sullenberger beyond the one defining event, his Wikipedia entry outs him as a lifelong high achiever who had multiple accomplishments to his name even before 2009 added “fame” to the list.