Clint Eastwood’s new film, Sully, is a meticulous recounting of the actions of Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger (Tom Hanks), best known as the pilot who saved the lives of an entire passenger plane on January 15, 2009 when he miraculously landed in the Hudson. An unambiguously heroic story starring one of the most likable movie stars in the world, Sully could easily be viewed as a preemptive career move on Eastwood’s part after the controversies around American Sniper’s biographical whitewashing.
Yet, the most radical thing about Sully is its apparent disinterest in presenting this story as a thriller. Beginning with a throttling dream sequence, Sully’s opening belies its intentions. A better encapsulation comes minutes later as Sully corrects an official who calls the incident a “crash.” “It was a forced water landing,” he says assertively in a line of dialogue that would be arrogant coming from any other actor, but feels ingratiating from Hanks. In other words, by mimicking the harmony of the real-life events, this is an anti-disaster film. Sully is foremost about control, harkening back to Howard Hawks films like Only Angels Have Wings in its exploration and admiration of the complexities of duty.
Part character study, primarily a courtroom drama, Sully focuses on the investigation of Sully’s actions by the National Transportation Safety Board. Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki aggressively analyze every minute detail and lingering rhetorical question, but the film deliberately avoids any opportunities to cast doubt on Sully’s motives. Instead, it’s far more invested in the working gears of professionalism in extraordinary situations. In fact, even details that could be smoking guns are just more chances for Eastwood to dive into process. Compared to Robert Zemeckis with Flight, Eastwood has no interest in telling a morality play; no missing clues or secret motives emerge in its final act. Sully lays out everything from the beginning, only adding wrinkles to the plot for a shade of conflict.
Even the film’s three centerpiece flashbacks are less blockbuster sequences than a 360-degree view of calmness under pressure. Eastwood never indulges in characteristic shots of baggage being jostled out of overhead compartments, or people screaming. By the same token, no weak link in the crew causes further problems in crisis. The trio of flight attendants at Sully’s side is unfailingly professional, even namechecking the exact problem seconds after it happens.
Shot by Eastwood veteran Tom Stern, these scenes have a sublime grace as the camera moves expertly to half a dozen vantage points: with a few seconds in a random car crossing the George Washington bridge as the passengers see the plane going down; that of an air traffic controller who feels a routine situation going belly-up; or beside a New York rescue team who answers the call to fish the unlucky passengers out of the Hudson after the crash. Even the personal details of the passengers of the plane are only relevant as far as establishing their priorities. Before the flight takes off, the camera hones in on a select few passengers whose trip goals are totally mundane. The closest thing to conflict comes with a father and two sons who are seconds away from missing their flight and ruining a golfing trip. If there are passengers who need to visit a dying relative or receive a life-saving operation, the film never mentions them.
The film feels far more airless when any of its dialogue relies upon Sully trying to talk about his feelings. There aren’t more awkward moments than when Sully attempts to hold a conversation with his wife, Lorraine (Laura Linney). Though these scenes are expertly paced, they’re painfully drained of all specifics. This broad strokes approach to character details works wonders in scenes of motion like the multiple crash flashbacks or the big-picture courtroom scenes, but it’s far less successful when the film tries to zoom in on interpersonal moments. Working in the same shades of unassuming pathos as last year’s Bridge of Spies, Hank is convincing flexing between his paradoxical discomfort in front of the spotlight and his easy sense of authority.
Hanks has been in the awards conversation for months before Sully’s release, but the film is ultimately a testament to Eastwood’s skills as a director. This is exactly the type of historical dramatization that Hollywood loves to churn out, but Sully doesn’t feel like merely a paycheck. Like much of latter-day Eastwood’s work, this is another flawed but thoughtful effort.
Writer: Todd Komarnicki, Chesley Sullenberger, Jeffrey Zaslow
Starring: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney, Mike O’Malley, Anna Gunn, Jamey Sheridan
Release Date: September 9, 2016