Director: Clint Eastwood
Stars: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney
One of the major debilitating symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is the inability to remember a traumatic event without feeling as though you are reliving it. Todd Komarnicki’s screenplay for Sully, directed by Clint Eastwood, is clearly sensitive to this fact. The decision made by airline pilot Captain Chesley Sullenger (Tom Hanks) to ditch Flight 1549 in the Hudson river after losing both engines to a bird strike and his execution of a perfect water landing took place in less than four minutes end-to-end. Yet the events of those four minutes ricochet back and forth throughout the pitch perfect 96 minute running time of this film. They’re never quite escaped.
Expectations for this film were middling as Eastwood’s prolific directorial work of late has been prone to misfires or efforts that have seemed half-hearted. It was easy to think that following the runaway success of 2015’s American Sniper, the octogenarian had decided to play it safe and proffer us another quick-win tale of an everyday American hero, albeit one less thorny with moral ambiguities or ulterior motives.
But Sully defies such churlish thinking. Eastwood’s hand has rarely felt so deft or so earnestly connected to a final vision for a movie, marking this out as one of the best films of his cluttered late period and also one of the best surprises of 2016. Usually around this time I’m cobbling together my end of year top 20 (it is coming…). Right now I’m glad I’ve held off for once. Sully is going to make it in.
The film does wobble on arrival. What appears to be the event itself is cut up with production company credits which feels as though the story is being given a disservice right off the bat. Thankfully, however, what we’re seeing is a dream sequence. It’s in the mind of Captain Sullenger the night following his death-defying dunk into the drink. In this scenario the plane collides with a New York building. It isn’t the first time that Sully will openly acknowledge an America still coming to terms with 9/11.
And though this and subsequent dream scenes in the film feel ever so slightly off-balance with the workmanlike tone evident elsewhere, they do help to key us into the psyche of a man not commonly seen to showboat his emotions. Hanks is about as dialed down here as he has even been, his riff on ‘Sully’ being just an ordinary working Joe who did his job under extraordinary pressure. Quietly, it’s easily his best performance this side of Captain Flipflops, and serves as a fine reminder that he’s one of the best in the business.
The first third of the film takes place ostensibly in the aftermath of the landing and examines the sense of disconnect felt by ‘Sully’ and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) in the days that followed. Limbo time spent in hotel rooms, stilted calls home and surreal experiences on the city’s news and entertainment shows. As happens following a life-changing event, ‘Sully’ finds the usual structures and handholds of the day-to-day frustratingly removed. It’s a feeling conveyed here with subtle temperance. Sully is impressive and immersive for how expertly it holds back. It’s not uneventful; it’s attuned to a specific sensibility.
As the FAA investigation calls his judgement into question, the film delicately unpacks Captain Sullenger’s experience until the riveting midsection zips us back and allows the full reconstructed event. Here again Eastwood skirts painting the landing on the Hudson like anything as cavalier as might be seen in an action movie. There’s a due diligence to the drama that unfolds, similar to that seen in Deepwater Horizon earlier this year, one that extends to the NYPD coast guard; a harder won understanding of the efforts being made by people working without enough time to emotionally respond. Yet this doesn’t feel distant. It just feels honest.
The final third takes us back to the FAA hearings, by which time Eastwood has skilfully built a fair amount of suspense for the outcome. The computer simulations suggest ‘Sully’ ought to have made it back to the airport. His reputation and future standing hang in the balance. Public perception is something of a theme throughout. Hanks plays the man’s bewilderment at being called a hero just as well as he does his offense at being lined up as a scapegoat. Eastwood almost wrong-foots it with Mike O’Malley’s appearance as review board chair Charles Porter. O’Malley comes close to seeming like a compassionless pantomime villain.
However, aware that this isn’t necessary, Eastwood pulls back at just the right moment. And it’s that aforementioned restraint that again serves the picture so well. Melodrama and sentimentality are excesses of populist American cinema that Sully isn’t encumbered with. Our erstwhile hero’s home life is painted in for context, but it is not embellished or wrung for easy emotional points. And when the film is over, it’s over. It’s the size it needs to be and no more. That’s commendable.
Sully is the first of the conspicuous prestige pictures to be let loose as the exhausting months-long awards season comes into view. Long-time Eastwood collaborator Tom Stern captures the events depicted here with his usual muted palette, and it feels especially fitting given the January setting. You can feel the chill of the Hudson. This is an unassuming picture that looks so mild-mannered and ‘classical’ as to not warrant full attention when there are more ‘interesting’ outliers to look out for. Sully appears too safe. But to dismiss it would do the film – and yourself – a disservice. This respectful little picture is one of the best American films of the year.
Even in the final act, as Sullenger and Skiles await judgement, the events of January 15th 2009 never disappear from view. Like a traumatic event it keeps recurring within the film. The insistence feels like the echoes taking place in the heads of the survivors. The landing on the Hudson might not have been a tragedy, but Eastwood’s film is here to remind us that an event doesn’t have to be catastrophic to leave a lasting, indelible impression.