At the fine age of 86, Clint Eastwood still shows no signs of slowing down, just 18 months ago he scored the biggest hit of his career with the surprise smash American Sniper. He returns now with another adaptation of a recent true story examining reluctant American heroism, a common theme for Clint, though a much less (potentially) controversial one with Sully.
Unlike American Sniper, which covered a period of several years, the big challenge facing Eastwood is how to justify producing a feature-length retelling of a 2009 flight in which US Airways pilot Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger faced a bird strike that took out both engines, forcing an emergency landing in the Hudson River which he successfully pulled off with all passengers and crew surviving. As the film itself notes, this event lasted a little over 200 seconds, it would (and does) make for a fine set piece, but is it enough to base a whole movie around?
Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki find a sensible way around that issue here by opting for a non-chronological structure. They assume the audience already possesses knowledge of the actual event and its outcome, and begin the film after it has already taken place. This choice serves to benefit the film in a couple of ways; firstly it removes any attempts at trying to draw cheap suspense from whether the plane will land or not. If the film had opened with the flight scene, it would have entirely altered it. Instead, switching it around makes the primary narrative that of Sully wrestling with whether or not he made the best decision he could. Plus, it also enables Eastwood to stage the crash scene as the film’s central sequence.
He begins before the take off and follows it through to the end of the rescue effort on the river in the film’s second act. This extended sequence is undoubtedly the highlight of the film and proves to be brilliantly effective at giving the audience an impression of what such a terrifying procedure must be like, and not just for the pilot. Eastwood cuts between the cockpit, the cabin crew, several passengers who’ve been introduced briefly before take-off, and air traffic control to give us the full scope of such an event. It’s a tremendous sequence, enhanced further by learning the fascinating methods employed by the professionals and in no-way hindered by foreknowledge. It easily justifies the film’s existence, but this isn’t simply a case of one great scene wrapped in filler.
The rest of the film deals with somewhat different material as Sully finds himself investigate by the NTSB in regards to whether or not the actions he took were the most sensible, despite their outcome. The airline believes that Sully may have put the plane and its passengers in an unnecessary amount of danger when he decided to go for the water landing rather than heading back for the airport. Not to mention, the fact that the plane is now still in the river rather than an easily recoverable position at the airport.
Now, without doing any further research myself I have no idea how much of this material is actually true. I certainly didn’t know about it going in, and I imagine it’s enhanced for dramatic effect and what have you but the gist of it comes across as authentic. It adds an engrossing dramatic conflict to the film, but also runs the risk of casting the National Transportation Safety Board in the role of the villain. They are unquestionably the antagonists here, as the movie is always on Sully’s side but they are also professionals acting on the information they possess – computer simulations that demonstrate a return to the airport was feasible.
This builds to a significant section of the film having the feel on an unconventional courtroom drama, although none of it takes place in an actual courtroom. We get to see the evidence assessed as piloted simulations are live-streamed in, another aspect of the investigation procedure I had no idea about, leading to a very satisfying third act. It’s only really the scenes in which we learn of Sully’s financial troubles that feel they could have been manufactured for the movie (I doubt they were, but still), as he faces the possibility of losing his license and his pension if found accountable, but these are brief exchanges in an overall tight movie (one of Eastwoods briskest endeavours at 90 minutes).
For the title role, a calm, dignified, all-round decent and well-intentioned Captain with a warm paternity authority; Tom Hanks is a blindingly obvious choice, but that’s for a very good reason. He’s played roles very similar to this before in Apollo 13, Saving Private Ryan and recently Captain Philips but he’s so good at it you can see exactly why he’s been cast here as a Captain yet again. He doesn’t really show us anything we haven’t seen him do before with his performance but it’s exactly what this film needs. After the rescue effort, he still is unable to feel secure again until he’s had a confirmed survivor count delivered and that scene, while not on the level of a similar in Captain Philips is still quite powerful.
Along with last year’s Bridge of Spies, Hanks looks to be cornering the ‘early autumn Dad movie’ market, which Sully is a textbook example of. His steady professionalism here, both as an actor and a character, proves to be a solid match for Eastwood’s directorial style. They deliver a feel-good tale of quiet heroism that, after a summer of overblown disappointments, proves to be quite refreshing.