On January 15, 2009, an airplane leaving New York bound for Charlotte ran into a flock of birds that killed the engines on both wings of the plane. The pilot managed to safely land the plane on the Hudson River and save the lives of all 155 people on board. Sully is director Clint Eastwood’s retelling of that event, the immediate questions surrounding it, and the investigation of the event.
The events of that day are told through extended flashbacks. Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (Tom Hanks), having safely piloted the plan to a crash landing in the Hudson, is experiencing some PTSD from the experience, replaying alternative outcomes in his head in nightmares in his sleep. When he is not struggling to sleep, he is being hailed a hero everywhere he turns. While this is going on, he and his co-pilot, Jeffrey Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) are participating in the NTSB’s investigation of the events on that day. Their data doesn’t entirely matchup with what Sully and Skiles experienced in the cockpit, which results in a certain level of questioning and doubt among the NTSB and eventually in Sully’s mind as he begins to wonder if he had enough to get the plane back to LaGuardia or to a runway in New Jersey rather than attempt a water landing on the Hudson.
The film shows scenarios being simulated to replicate the conditions and events of that day to see if Sully and Skiles were correct in their actions. At the same time, Sully plays out scenarios in his own head, which keep coming back to everything his 40+ years of experience told him: that he had no other alternative.
That Eastwood and company manage to sustain the air of doubt for the film’s runtime, a short 96 minutes by Eastwood’s standards, is an accomplishment. It’s a story that seemingly everyone is familiar with, and the event itself only lasted a matter of minutes. Rather than focus entirely on the event itself, the film focuses mostly on the aftermath. The suffocating press coverage, the details of the investigation, and how ill-fitting the newfound fame feels for Sully are all touched upon.
Tom Hanks does his typically great work here. He really is one of the premiere acting talents of his time, something that is easy to gloss over, especially the further away we get from his back to back Oscar wins for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump in the mid-90s. Hanks almost always elevates whatever material he attaches his name to. It’s not so much that his portrayal of Sully is among his greatest performances of his career that makes, but that he can be Tom Hanks, movie star, and still make an real-life hero seem down to earth and not larger than life. Sully, as a character is a regular person put in an extraordinary situation, and that comes across in Hanks’ performance.
Eastwood has assembled a solid cast around him as well, though how they are used is less than ideal. Eckhart is perfect as Skiles, portraying a man who is unwavering in support of Sully and convinced of what he experienced, regardless of what the data suggests. He’s also sporting a spectacular, Ron Swanson-level moustache. Laura Linney pops up from time to time as Sully’s wife, Lorraine, who is unfortunately has zero physical interaction with the rest of the crew, only appearing for phone conversations with her husband. Essentially, she’s in her own movie.
Mike O’Malley, Jamey Sheridan, and Anna Gunn comprise the NTSB panel that is heading up the investigation. For about 90% of the film they are portrayed in the thankless role of bureaucratic villains, seemingly looking to nail Sully and Skiles to the wall for reckless actions in this crisis situation. The end of the film has a moment that attempts to redeem them, but falls short. The story is a little slight, and there has to be some kind of conflict, and they end up being the sacrificial lambs to the service of the story, probably not doing justice to their real-life counterparts. My impression is that Eastwood was trying to juxtapose their bureaucracy of looking at the cold, hard numbers of the event versus the human element of it, but went a tad too far in trying to make that point.
One thing I did not expect was the emotional impact of the film. There are obvious, unavoidable ties to 9/11, given that the story involves a plan and New York City. The scenarios that Sully plays out in his head are somberly played out on screen as he wonders what would have happened if he had tried to get the plane back to La Guardia or shot for a landing elsewhere, always with dire results. On top of the clear ties to 9/11, there is also the personal responsibility that Sully projects over the lives of every single passenger on his plane. His desire to know for certain that all of the passengers are safe and accounted for is palpable. Also, the heroism of first responders is highlighted too, and the quickness with which people respond the event to rescue the passengers of the flight is surprisingly moving as well.
Sully is a solid, grown-up, Eastwood drama that represents, for all intents and purposes, the unofficial transition from a lackluster summer of blockbusters and flashy CGI to more mature fare. Compared to other films by Eastwood, it’s slighter in story, but has some emotional heft to it. It’s another fine performance from Tom Hanks, and it does a good job of showing how the trauma of an event, and the second guessing and doubt that can accompany it, can haunt you, even when everything is telling you that you did the right thing. It also celebrates real-life heroism by everyday people.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars