‘Sully’ Review: Clint Eastwood and Tom Hanks’ Take on American Heroism
Even by the standards of a biopic about an incredibly famous man at the center of an incredibly famous real-life event there isn’t a ton of suspense in Sully. Everyone who was alive and conscious on January 15, 2009 remembers what happened that day, when Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger safely landed US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River after the plane was struck by birds during takeoff.(I certainly do; I’d just arrived at my condo for the Sundance Film Festival and watched the rescue efforts unfold on live television.)
Sully the man was almost immediately hailed as a hero, but Sully the movie focuses primarily on the National Transportation Safety Board investigation into whether his decisions during the crisis were justified. (SPOILER ALERT: They were.) As such, Sully’s character arc over the course of the film is basically “Self-effacing guy is told repeatedly he’s a hero until he finally believes it.” And because the entire incident from bird strike to crash landing took just 208 seconds (plus the all-important minutes spent evacuating the plane), there’s barely enough excitement for one modern action sequence, much less an entire 90-minute film. The whole reason why Sully and Flight 1549 are so famous is because no one died. So we’ve got a film about a good man who did a good thing and everyone was okay. Not exactly a nail-biter.
But while Clint Eastwood’s Sully doesn’t have much of a story, it does have a point, one rooted in the fact that Flight 1459 was as undramatic as a jet airliner crashing into a major body of water could be, because everyone involved, from the first responders to the civil rescue workers to the passengers to the crew of Flight 1549 all “did their jobs,” a phrase that is repeated several times in Sully. The landing sequences in Sully are reasonably tense, but Eastwood (and the historical record) provide no unnecessary complications or twists. The film isn’t about catastrophe; it’s about the beauty of what happens when everyone works together to solve a problem.
At the center of it all is Sully, played superbly by a white-haired Tom Hanks. The movie opens with a chilling nightmare of what could have happened to Flight 1549 if Sully had made the wrong decision, and then follows him as he bounces back and forth from NTSB hearings to public appearances and interviews with the news media. In one scene, he’s a hero at a Manhattan bar. In the next, government investigators claim the plane’s computer data suggests Flight 1549 could have made it back to La Guardia, casting doubt on Sully’s heroic actions. In moments of uncertainty, Sully calls his wife Lorraine (Laura Linney), who tells him she loves him and reminds him of all the lives he saved. He rarely says I love you back, wonders what he’ll do if he’s forced to retire, and warns that he may not be able to come home for a while because of the investigation. Again, he’s got to do his job.
Sully is the first collaboration between Hanks and Eastwood, and it finds them meeting on thematic common ground to tell a story about a concept Hanks has spent a lot of time exploring in recent years, and Eastwood has devoted decades to investigating onscreen: The nature of American heroism. For Hanks, Sully completes an informal trilogy on the subject that began in Captain Phillips and continued in last year’s Bridge of Spies; all three are about average men thrust into extraordinary danger who commit selfless good deeds. For Eastwood, Sully is just the last piece of a cinematic project that dates back half a century. Once again, he’s riffing on notions of self-sacrifice and courage under fire.
Eastwood turned 86 last May, and a few hokey touches notwithstanding (like a dream sequence where Katie Couric admonishes Hanks through his television), shoots and cuts Sully with the energy of a director half his age. The visual storytelling is so precise, like the repeated close-ups of Sully’s hands to mark the film’s various time periods; steady as a rock before the crash and fidgety and wobbly afterwards. The Flight 1549 sequences (there are several, told from different points of view) are impressive technical feats, seamlessly blending digital effects and a large cast of actors to recreate the crash and rescue. On his last movie, American Sniper, Eastwood got flack for not even bothering to try to make a fake baby look real. For Sully, which was shot with IMAX cameras, it looks like Eastwood actually dumped a jet in the middle of the Hudson and half-drowned Tom Hanks in freezing water. The you-are-there immediacy is incredible.
A cynic might say Sully should have been called Clint Eastwood’s F--- You, Computers, and they wouldn’t be entirely off-base. The only villain the movie, aside from those birds who fouled up Flight 1549’s engines, are the data simulators and algorithms that insist Sully did something wrong. (“This isn’t a video game, this was life and death!” one character barks during the climactic NTSB hearing.) But Sully is less about condemning machines than celebrating the everyday valor of the human beings who don’t hesitate when there are lives on the line. (It’s possible that Eastwood is making a larger point here about computers taking over the human element in modern cinema, though it should be noted that he couldn’t have recreated Sully’s landing with anywhere near the same level of authenticity and intensity without those computers.)
I’m not a great flyer and tomorrow I travel to the Toronto Film Festival, two facts that made me nervous about going to see Sully. Experiencing the terror of an airplane disaster about 48 hours before I’ve got to get on an airplane is a recipe for disaster for a neurotic like myself. And though I don’t think you’ll see Sully as in-flight entertainment anytime soon, the film is actually comforting in a weird way. Flight 1549 is known as the “Miracle on the Hudson,” but Eastwood sees nothing miraculous in it; just decent, hard-working people doing their jobs. That’s not a miracle. That’s America. In a moment of crisis, everything but the engines worked exactly as it should.